The number of mature students in Further Education (FE) colleges is expected to rise, with more people opting for a career change or looking to reskill due to technology advancements such as the expected replacement of jobs by AI, and the upcoming Government Lifelong Entitlement Fund. My research looked at the availability and quality of mental health and wellbeing services for mature students in FE colleges. Does existing support meet the needs of mature students? This inconsistency can be a significant challenge for mature students who already face additional pressure while balancing education with their existing responsibilities.
I wanted to explore the obstacles that mature students face to find what support services are available, and specifically examining the support services offered by different FE institutions.
My initial approach was to reach out to the college’s support services, but unfortunately, I did not receive a response. As a result, I decided I would approach the task as a student trying to find out the information from the college websites.
What did I find
My research found a staggering inconsistency in the availability of mental health support services across colleges in the UK, particularly for mature students.
After conducting a thorough analysis of a sample of college websites across the UK, I noticed two significant areas of inconsistency: the accessibility of information about available support and the way it is presented. This lack of clarity can be frustrating for prospective students who are seeking guidance and support to make informed decisions.
Unfortunately, there is currently no standardised approach for colleges to present this information, and even when it is available, it is often lacking in detail. To ensure that all students, particularly those who are vulnerable or overlooked, such as mature students, have access to the support they need, it is crucial to provide clear, concise, and honest information about the services available.
We also spoke with a former recruiter of apprentices who had worked closely with colleges in the Midlands. They confirmed that “the quality of student support varies significantly”, and it is often a “luck-of-the-draw” whether students receive the necessary structure and assistance outside of their coursework. Our investigation of several colleges in the UK revealed similar findings: while some institutions offer a range of support options both inside and outside the institution, others have little to no information available.
However, there are some positive experiences. We spoke with a current health and social care mature student studying at a West Yorkshire college who had positive experiences with the college’s support services. Nevertheless, more consistency is necessary across UK colleges. In the following section, we will explore some of the ways in which FE colleges are addressing mental health and how mature students fit into these efforts.
For students who prefer, and find in person help the most effective, the availability of mental health services varies significantly from college to college. While I found some colleges have dedicated spaces on campus for students to discuss their problems, others have drop-in centres throughout the week, either on-site or in external locations. Speaking to some students, I found that colleges have long waiting-lists due to a shortage of resources. This limited availability can be a significant pitfall for mature students who may struggle to attend drop-in centres at fixed times due to work, parenting, or other commitments. FE colleges have a duty of care to ensure that mature students get the support they need to deal with life inside and outside of college.
Third Party Support
FE colleges are increasingly using online therapy tools to manage the strain on their mental health services, with Kooth being a popular service offered by many of them. Kooth offers 24/7 online support tailored specifically to students, including online counselling, mental health diaries, mood trackers, forums, and blog posts. The tool sounds ideal for assisting with a larger influx in students putting a strain on services in FE. However, the major downside is that access is area dependent, and some colleges do not offer the service at all. Additionally, many services including Kooth and Student Space, limit support to students under the age of 25, which may deter mature students from seeking help.
Call to Action
FE colleges are aware of their responsibility to provide mental health support that is both inclusive and flexible enough to cater to the needs of all students, regardless of their age. Given that college is intended for everyone, the mental health support system should reflect this fact. By removing barriers such as age labels on third-party support services, we can significantly improve inclusivity, particularly in mental health support.
Furthermore, it is crucial to actively promote mental health support services, particularly for prospective students considering enrolment. Unfortunately, there is too much inconsistency across the sector, and it could be useful to establish a standard for providing clear information about support services to all students before they join colleges. It is unclear what this may look like, but its important as a sector, that we collaborate and discover the best way we can present this information to prospective students. Concealing support tools behind password-protected intranets or only offering such resources to enrolled students is not helpful. Instead, we need to be transparent and clear about the support that students can expect.
Ultimately, making mental health support accessible and readily available is crucial to create a positive and inclusive learning environment for all students in FE colleges. If the predicted growth in mature learners in colleges was to happen, we could see a large growth in the need for support provision. Making it transparent will ensure that students feel confident and supported throughout their educational journey, which is essential for their success.
If you are interested in supporting students in colleges or have comments on what I have written, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d welcome any feedback.