Memorandum from Samantha McCormick (HE
I recently attended the meeting held in Manchester
by the Committee, examining the needs of students from non-traditional
backgrounds. The Committee asked me to forward research findings
that I discussed at this meeting.
In December 1999 I conducted a piece of research
examining the needs of women returning to education in North Manchester.
A community profile that I had conducted earlier in that year
in the same area of North Manchester had revealed high levels
of social deprivation and low levels of educational achievement.
Both pieces of research were conducted in connection with my studies
at Manchester Metropolitan University, local educational establishments
The Research considered how effectively the
needs and welfare of women over 20 are addressed and met in the
context of formal education and the support needed to carry on
to higher education. It provides an analysis of how informal childcare
and formal local networks and resources may contribute to the
identified needs of women over 20 in formal education, in ways
that encourage empowerment and participation by the service user.
Needs for women returning to education everywhere
have similarities but the social economic position, higher percentage
of lone parents, lack of transport facilities, high incidence
of ill health, debt and unemployment which were found in the profile
means that women in this area have specific needs.
I appreciate the limited timeframe for the Committee,
so have included only the major findings and recommendations of
relevance. I have also changed the presentation of the data so
the style is more conversational and less specific to North Manchester.
The majority of my sample (300 respondents) were women, who had
not gained recognised qualifications at school, had childcare
responsibilities and lived in or below the poverty line.
Findings and recommendations
1. Work deadlines
Respondents performed well academically, even
when compared to those from a "traditional" academic
background. However producing the work seemed to take a long time
and often found deadlines difficult to meet because of family/work
responsibilities. More support is needed for students who have
genuine difficulties meeting deadlines.
Respondents felt supported and valued when attending
courses at the local FE College, but did not continue to do so
when they moved on to a Higher Educational establishment. Often
this was because they are large institutions with many other students
on campus. If students were able to spend time at the Universities
before they attend, more time would be given for this adjustment.
2.1 Mature students felt that the recreational
activities organised by the Universities and Student Union only
catered for the needs of younger students with no major responsibilities,
so social aspects of university life were not available to them.
Reliability, affordability, safety and locality
are the major concerns of the respondents. When childcare is on
offer connected to educational establishments it is only available
to children under school age. Childcare places are very limited
and a charge is still made. Although these places are subsidised
my respondents were still unable to afford the fees.
3.1 There is no help for those with children
at school. After-school care and childcare during reading weeks
and holidays would enable carers to study, and play-schemes run
by educational establishments, free of charge and based on campus,
would allow those with responsibilities to study during the holidays.
If all lecture times and holidays allow for childcare responsibility,
those with school age children are able to study during school
times and the need for after school care is then reduced.
4. Benefits system
Over 75 per cent of respondents have experienced
problems with the benefits system and 60 per cent felt that this
had been so problematic that it had put their home, family or
place on the course at significance risk.
4.1 Those who did not have children felt
that the benefits system was only interested in getting them off
benefits and did not recognise that they were working towards
a better future.
4.2 The income of a student is not constant.
Loans and grants are given in three instalments of differing amounts.
The benefits service seems unable to make accurate and quick decisions
on the entitlement of lone parents who study to means tested benefits.
Training in this area is desperately needed.
4.3 Students have to keep applying for the
same benefits again and again at different times of the year because
their income has changed. It is difficult to be certain as to
what amount you will be awarded; consequently budgeting is impossible.
Many students had accepted the fact that they were going to struggle
financially but this system means they lack any security. It would
be easier to make a family budget if grants and loans were paid
monthly and all year to those who were unable to work.
5. Supportive staff
Academically and socially, staff to receive
training on the needs of students returning from a non-traditional
6. A safe environment to study
Regardless of disability, race, gender, and
7. Independent and active Student Union
An active Student Union can advocate, empower
and represent students and their needs on a local and national
level. It is important to have an independent body representing
students at the college. Specific roles such as women's officer,
lesbian, gay and bisexual officer and welfare rights officer have
essential supportive roles to students in the college.
8. Supportive educational networks
Examine how students' educational careers from
one institution to another can be supported and to examine the
possibility of providing some types of Higher Education supported
locally. The respondents did not want to move away from their
local area and established family networks to study.
8.1 Locally provided Higher Education would
allow local people to stay in the area while studying in HE and
encourage people into the area to study. If local people do not
have to move or commute into a different area to fulfil their
education potential, then they are more likely to carry on feeling
a "connection" with the area and stay once qualified.
In areas of high social deprivation this is essential.
The perception of student loans as lifelong
debt had discouraged many of my respondents who had done well
in Further Education Colleges from applying to Higher Education.
They were worried that if they were unable to complete the course
or gain employment, they would still be in debt. When it was explained
to the respondents that they would only have to begin payment
when they could afford it, they still perceived loans as a huge
barrier in accessing HE. This is because in areas of poverty,
debt is perceived differently, always to be avoided; a graduate
tax system would remove this barrier.