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Back to the future? Part II

Posted by Becky Hartnup on 20 February, 2020

fashion-hand-hurry-outfit-4956In Back to the future? Part I, I looked at the motivations of ‘returners’; mature students who, having spent some time in the workplace, have decided to step back into the classroom in order to progress their careers.

This blog asks ‘What matters to ‘returners’ and what can universities do to support them?’

Money Matters
One major issue that returners face is that funding isn’t generally available for a second undergraduate degree. And, in addition to the outlay of fees, some returners also give up work or cut back on their hours, reducing their income. Even without the context of their other life commitments, the costs of returning to higher education make it a high-risk decision. Returners closely compare the costs of the various courses on offer – and some may be locked out by high fees.

Returners said:

‘Paying for the course was quite a big deal – if it costs money it is a joint family issue. I had to think more carefully about whether I would finish it and if it would lead me into a job. It did add to the pressure.'

‘There was another similar course at a more well-regarded institution, but it cost £4,000 more. Which was too much for me.’

Making additional costs transparent is just as important for this group as it is for traditional students. In addition, they are less likely to be able to turn to the bank of mum and dad to fund textbooks and other essentials.

Location, location, location
Returners are tied to a specific location by family and work, which can restrict them in their choice of courses. This may mean a commute to a ‘local’ university, which in practice may be up to 2 hours away, or they might choose a more distant university that offers an online course.

Returners said:

‘I had a couple of choices that were within commuting distance.’

‘It had to be local or online’

Even if they choose a face to face course, they will be on campus less and make lower use of facilities. A sticky campus – with digitally-enabled spaces - can encourage students to spend more time on site and to engage – assuming they are not dashing back to work for a meeting, or home to feed the kids.

Sticky campus initiatives can help mature students connect with one another and feel closer to their university. However, they will see even greater value in easily accessible online resources that they can use from home or on their commute, than in improved onsite facilities.

Online courses let students fit study in the spaces in their lives – opening up education to a group who would otherwise be excluded. But simply offering a course online is not enough. Time is a limiting factor – and can be a major consideration when choosing a course. Returners need to be organised and plan ahead and above all be realistic. Course structure – the combination of on-campus modules vs online or independent study - is important to this group of students as their course needs to flex around their life.

Returners said:

‘Structure is important. A well organised course should make sure that there aren’t any coursework clashes. It's less of a problem for a full-time student but if you are trying to combine with work or a family it is impossible.’

‘I did look at the number of hours. I’d have liked to ask previous students if those hours were realistic. I felt quite at the mercy of that. If it takes me longer it will be a problem.’

‘It works for me because of the way it’s been structured - the synchronous bits of the course are not onerous and not always compulsorily. There’s a selection of times when you can attend.’


You can support returners in making a realistic decision by publishing course information in as much detail as possible. As well as knowing the number of hours they need to commit, they will want to ensure that exam dates – and assignment deadlines - don’t clash with work travel plans or commitments like children’s school plays. Ensure resources are there when they need them – they will have allocated a set time to study and, if the book they need is out of the library, this will have a major impact.

Back to school nightmares are common for children at the end of the summer holidays. In the same way, going back to university can trigger anxiety for adults. Imposter syndrome is common, particularly early in the course and approaching the first assignments.

Returners said:

‘I was worried I wouldn’t be good enough before I started, but as the course went on I felt better. The course was designed so, at the beginning, you have weekly tutor contact, giving feedback. That helped me gain a lot of confidence.’

You can help by dealing with doubts and imposter syndrome anxiety head on in inductions. Provide online refresher modules on study skills. Group work can help returners interact with one another and the wider cohort, helping them build peer support networks and reducing their anxiety. Early assessment and tutor contact can build confidence.

Returners bring your institution maturity, commitment and a different perspective that will benefit all your students. University is not their default, it is a clear decision to move on from one stage of their life to another. Give them:

a) Flexible and affordable learning options
b) Targeted courses with career impact
c) Well-structured support

And you will enable them to move forward and see your institution as their solution. In addition, all these initiatives will add value for students across the board – benefitting the wider university community.

Take a look at the UCEM case study to see how VitalSource works with universities to support flexible, affordable learning for mature students.

Topics: Students, university, academic leadership, higher education, employability, research, mature students, returners, workplace, careers

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