Internationally there has been a large body of literature presented on the experiences of mature students, who have returned to higher education after a significant absence from compulsory education (for example, Baxter and Britton, 1999; Baxter and Britton, 2001; Lister, 2003; O’Donnell and Tobbell, 2007; O’Shea and Stone, 2011) to name but a few. Within much of this literature Baxter and Britton (1999:181) would point out that despite the marginalisation of women in educational research studies, this has not been the case in the literature presented on mature student whereby the “mature student is usually assumed to be female” and studies have particularly focused more so on women returners rather than both genders.
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Up until the late 1980s through to the early 1990s the primary research method used to conduct much of these studies was the large-scale quantitative survey, (for example, see Watkins, 1982) where the findings illustrated that mature students had a shared set of characteristics including educational background and educational achievements (Baxter and Britton, 1999; Parr, 2000). However, mature students are not a homogenous group, as each student’s higher education experience will be determined by factors including class, gender and ethnicity (O’Donnell and Tobbell, 2007; Morgan, 2013). Therefore, Richardson (1994:322) would state that to research the life experiences of mature students in higher education, this cannot be “carried out by means of bare quantitative procedures such as questionnaires” where the appropriate approach required would be to conduct individual semi-structured interviews.
The defining feature which categorises mature students is based on age but this can vary on the country in question, for example, in Sweden, Norway and Australia the mature student is classified as someone who is over twenty-five years of age (Thomas and Quinn, 2006) as opposed to the UK where according to the Higher Education Statistics Authority the mature student is someone who is over twenty-one (HESA, 2014). According to Smith (2008:1) the term mature student “identifies a category of learners who embark on a course of study later in life” and can include any adult education programme such as further and/or higher education
Historically, the role of women was to devote themselves to the position of homemaker. However, as western society as advanced to become more egalitarian this has witnessed a rapid shift in mothers with child/ren returning to education to become more self-sufficient and to gain a sense of self-identity. However, Baxter and Britton (2001) would argue that while trying to balance their student role, women still have a multiplicity of other roles were they shoulder the responsibility of childcare and domestic life, therefore, inequalities between genders are still widely seen. In recent times, the subordinate role of women in societies for example non wage winner, 2nd class citizen etc.throughout the world has significantly improved, slowly closing the gender gap in equality. One of the many advantages to this in modern society is that women have now the opportunity of gaining a good education. According to Parr (2000) this has led to increasing numbers of mature women returning to education, not just to gain a paper qualification or to obtain better job opportunities but also to become more self-sufficient and to gain a sense of self-identity. This increase in mature women returning to higher education can be linked to the formation of ‘lifelong education’ (O’Shea and Stone, 2011).
The concept of lifelong education is not new whereby, ancient societies emphasised the need “to learn from the cradle to the grave” (Gishti, 2009). However, it was not until the late twentieth/early twenty-first century that lifelong education became ‘heralded’ as an new age phenomenon, and became high on the social agenda of many governments and international organisations such as, UNESCO (Jackson, Malcolm and Thomas, 2011). In 1972 UNESCO International Commission on the Development of Education published the “Faure report” with the aim to assist governments in formulating and implementing new strategies in lifelong education. The primary underpinning of this report emphasised how important it was that every individual had the opportunity to lifelong education (Learning to be, 1972). This led to the UNESCO institute becoming the first institution to address the needs and aspirations of adult learners and in 2006 the name was changed to UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, to reflect the institute’s focus on adult learning (UNESCO, 2013).
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According to Lister (2003) the primary focus in the role of lifelong learning is to combat social exclusion and target previously excluded groups. One of the many disadvantaged groups that lifelong learning particularly aims to benefit is those of women who have caring responsibilities and childcare commitments. Encompassing a broad perspective Lister (2003) would also note that the role of higher education plays a key part in the development of lifelong learning However, Jackson et al (2011:5) argues that in western societies women continue to be limited to their choices of learning when returning to education as “the gendered nature of the hidden curriculum […] restrict women’s access” to many courses. This in turn can create difficulties for women who are interested in following a particular career path. Nonetheless, for mature women lifelong learning can be a source of empowerment and emancipation (Bhattachra, 2014). Therefore, “education is seen as empowering, in that it opens up employment opportunities and is a vehicle for the development of the self.” (Baxter and Britton, 2001:87).
Upon commencing on this journey of self-discovery, O’ Shea and Stone (2011) would note that as mature students, women may harbour feelings of self-doubt and hesitation. In trying to play the role of the student, O’Shea’s (2014) study found that mature women encounter many anxieties where they feel like ‘imposters’ in a higher education institute after having been absent from education for such a long time. According to O’Donnell and Tobbell (2007) many adult students in general, regardless of their gender, feel vulnerable because they lack experience in formal education and also because they have additional pressures outside of education to contend with, such as family responsibilities.
From the scoping review of the literature above there is a clear demonstrable opportunity for research on mature women that return to education after a significant gap. Therefore, this dissertation aims to explore how non-traditional mature ?? women manage their student role along with the multitude of other responsibilities that they shoulder. Within the framework of this study, this dissertation will also examine the emotional journey of mature women from the transition of ‘expected’ roles to the enablement of participation in life-long learning and personal capacity building. Coming from a feminist perspective the social specific issues which will be addressed include the empowerment, inequality and oppression of women with children or other caring responsibilities.
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