Age is just a number for legions of mature students

Returning to education is tough but worthwhile, discovers Russ Thorne

Amid the flurry of Freshers' Fairs, goody bags and loyalty cards aimed at 18- and 19-year-old first year students, it's sometimes easy to overlook the fact that the student body is considerably more age-diverse than you might think. Mature students – those over 21 at the time of starting a course – make up around a third of the UK's student population.

Some have returned from gap years or breaks from full time education and sign up at 22 having spent relatively little time away from the academic world. Others come from various points along the employment spectrum, with some taking up courses mid-career, or post-retirement.

"In practice mature students are more like 28 and over," says Sue Eccles, head of education at Bournemouth University's media school. "People go to university later in life for a career change, or to shore up experience and gain formal qualifications."

While exact reasons for going to university as a mature student vary as much as the choice of courses, the experience can offer many shared benefits both professionally and personally. According to Eccles, one benefit is that degree-level qualifications can allow mature graduates to apply for a wider range of new roles that they may have previously lacked the theoretical knowledge for. "It's about knowing why what you do works and how to refine or improve it over time, plus having the confidence to think around things to find solutions."

Armed with a university education that has helped them develop alternative methods of thinking, Eccles believes that older graduates can be sensible hires for employers. "People are looking for rounded, balanced graduates of any age who are able to bring new things to the organisation and hit the ground running," she argues. "A lot of mature graduates are able to do exactly that: they have the work ethic already."

These new skills can benefit those who study alongside their existing career adds Sally Blakeman, academic administrator at the University of Warwick's Centre for Lifelong Learning, whether that's through promotion or better remuneration. "Students quite often see the benefits part of the way through their courses. Employers see the skills that they have picked up and the commitment they have made to studying, and that can help them make real progress."

Career enhancement isn't the only reason mature students give for entering higher education, Blakeman continues. "What we hear quite often is that people want to be positive role models for their children, especially if no one in the family has been to university. They want their children to see them study and perhaps raise the aspirations of the whole family."

For others there's the attraction of joining a programme for pleasure. "Some just want the activity of studying," says Blakeman. "They want to be part of that academic community and that can be very beneficial."

As with all higher education options, these benefits come at a cost. Revised funding structures will affect grants for Access courses (sometimes taken by older students to gain the necessary qualifications for admittance onto degree programmes) from 2013 and tuition fees apply across the board. Although some part time students are eligible for loans, finances are a significant worry for many would-be students according to both Eccles and Blakeman.

Other potential obstacles include the time required to study – often mitigated by part-time and flexible learning programmes that can spread courses over anything up to 10 years – and the shock to the system of returning into an academic environment. "It's important to be realistic," says Blakeman. "Returning to education can be challenging."

However, Eccles believes the effort can be more than worth it. A former mature student herself, she understands the benefits of interacting with younger students in particular. "I 'grew down' quite a lot! It can loosen up people who have been in work for a few decades and allow them to experience another side of life. For me it opened up a door to knowledge that was a complete revelation."

Blakeman agrees, saying that an undergraduate degree can open numerous new doors, be they financial or professional. But she adds that for many, the achievement itself is enough. "The tremendous sense of pride from graduating students is impossible to describe. It's that sense of something positive and new in their lives; that's key for a lot of people."

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