If you're over 21 and thinking of returning to higher education, you are now in the majority

Mature students now make up more than half of the student population. Admittedly, the definition refers to anyone over 21 and includes part-time students, so the oldies haven't yet taken over! But if you are no longer in the first flush of youth, will be enrolling in a few weeks' time and are wondering how you will fit in with 18-year-olds, don't worry. You will be just fine.

Are mature students concentrated in specific universities and colleges? Not really. Every institution has at least a few, although some have particularly high numbers. Most of the older universities average 13-14 per cent while the newer ones, especially those that traditionally have a high local recruitment (since at the end of the day if you have family commitments, it boils down to where you live) have the larger numbers - some as high as 48 per cent of full-time students. Older students are often attracted to the smaller colleges too, where they are able to commute more easily.

You might be in the minority at your institution or even on your course, but that is no reason why you should not fit in! Younger students are generally very welcoming and don't categorise students into age groups. You should find that you mix together well in lectures and tutorial groups - also in free time. "There is a very friendly atmosphere in the refectory," says Hugh Bochel, Professor of Policy Studies at the University of Lincoln. "When I look around, I see groups of students of all ages talking together." But the real difference - if you have a partner and particularly if you have children - will be the fact that you won't share much of the younger students' social life. Older students tend to go home at the end of the day to concentrate on home matters.

Mature students are welcomed by teaching staff. "They often have a deeper commitment because many see this as a second chance," says Hugh Bochel.

Will you cope academically? You should do. You will probably have been asked to undertake some recent study and wouldn't have been offered a place unless the academic staff were confident of your ability. What mature students may lack in qualifications, they often make up for in other ways. Claire Brewis, programme leader for the Occupational Therapy degree at the University of Teesside says, "The mature students are especially good at being reflective learners and using their past experience to analyse situations and interpret academic work in greater depth."

They can also teach younger students a thing or two about time management. "They are generally much better at managing the demands made on their time, despite often having many more responsibilities than their younger colleagues," says Stephen Bailey, programme leader for the MA Design at Teesside. "Complaints about the pressure of studies tend to fade in the face, for example, of a mother who completes work on time while looking after young children."

If though, you do find that pressure builds up - suppose that one of your children becomes ill just before an assignment deadline, be sure to ask for an extension. You'll normally get one.

What about money? That is the mature student's single most difficult area. You'll probably be poorer than you were - and need to know all the possible sources of finance. You are entitled to the same help with tuition fees as younger students - see pages 16 and 17 - and may apply for a student loan if you are under 55. Sources of finance are summarised on this page.

Mature students usually complain about the complicated structure of benefits, grants, loans and payments to which they might be entitled and the time needed to access relevant information. Good news! The system for England, Northern Ireland and Wales has now been simplified. The 14 different benefits that were available are being streamlined into five grants over the next two years. Even so, you'll probably need help in claiming them - especially as some can affect benefits. Faced with the option of claiming from a choice of different sources you need to know which will be the best combination. For instance, you do not want to find that any existing entitlement to Income Support or Housing Benefit becomes affected. The best people to ask are Student Welfare staff at your intended university or college.

'I'VE NEVER BEEN HAPPIER'

PHILIP ROBINSON, 30. University of Teesside

Philip graduated last year with a 2:1 in youth studies from the University of Teesside. He now has a job as a development worker with a lottery-funded project that houses and supports single teenage parents.

My father wanted me to join the Royal Marines - and I did pursue that idea for a while. Then I frankly drifted from job to job, until at 22 I realised I was going nowhere and began to study psychology at evening classes. Then, I began to think about university and did an Access course at Redcar and Cleveland College. That was really, really hard. Even writing the simplest essay was difficult and when I failed some of the exams first time round I thought, "I'll never cope with a degree course." But I kept going - and university then gave me no problems! I was ready for the workload and I knew how to study.

Fitting in with other students wasn't difficult. Ages ranged from 19 to 40 and we got on well. There was one difference in the age groups though! The minute I was handed an essay or assignment I started work on it. The mature students never asked for an extension to deadlines! What was difficult was managing financially. My girlfriend worked all the time I was at university and we lived on her salary and my student loan. Money was tight and I missed my social life. We have a little boy who is five and now I'm earning a decent salary I spoil him rotten.

I have never been happier in my life. I would do it all over again and would advise any prospective mature student to go for it. I loved academic work and would do a Masters if I could afford to.

'MY ADVICE IS TO GO FOR IT!'

LUCILLE BAILEY, 41. King ALfred's, Winchester

Lucille graduated from King Alfred's, Winchester (where 47 per cent of full-timers are mature) with a 2:1 in psychology with philosophy and now works there as a marketing assistant.

I left school with A-levels and did a secretarial course. I had no interest in higher education. After a few years, I got married and had a son who had special needs - so I stayed at home until he was 11. I thought about doing a degree in my late twenties but it was about 10 years later before I decided to test myself by doing A-level psychology. I was accepted here on the basis of my A-levels without interview.

There was no demarcation on my course. About 25 per cent of us were "mature", but all ages worked well together on assignments and in study groups. There were times when I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew. The level of academic work wasn't difficult but there was a huge reading commitment.

I stuck out for a long time trying to live on savings, housing benefit and my grant but I soon found that I needed a computer and printer and reluctantly applied for a student loan. I couldn't manage everything else if I was constantly queuing to use the college ones. Childcare was sometimes difficult as my son was too old for a nursery and too young to be on his own after school; my marriage had broken up some years earlier. But I did cope thanks to friends and family.

My advice is go for it - and apply for a loan straight away.

USEFUL SOURCES OF INFORMATION

A booklet 'Financial Support for Higher Education Students in England and Wales' - available in England and Wales from the Department for Education and Skills, 0800 731 9133 or the National Assembly for Wales Higher Education Division, 02920 825 831; in Northern Ireland from the Department for Employment and Learning, 02890 257708

A booklet 'What Support is Available for Mature Scottish Students in Higher Education?' from Student Awards Agency for Scotland, 0845 111 1711

* The DfES student support website: www.dfes.gov.uk/studentsupport

* The Welsh Assembly: www.learning.wales.gov.uk

* Northern Ireland: www.delni.gov.uk

* Student Awards Agency for Scotland, www.saas.gov.uk

* For social security benefits, the local office of the Department for Work and Pensions (for Benefits Agency)

SOURCES OF FINANCIAL HELP

IN ENGLAND, NORTHERN IRELAND AND WALES

* Means-tested assistance with payment of tuition fees

* Student loan

Depending on your circumstances, you may be eligible for the following:

* Parents' Learning Allowance Up to £1,300 - apply to LEA/ELB

* Childcare Grant Up to £8,840 for two children - apply to LEA/ELB

* Dependant's Grant (for one dependant adult) Up to £2,280 - apply to LEA/ELB

* Child Tax Credit Claim from Inland Revenue

* Hardship Fund* Payment (variable amount) - apply to university or college

* Hardship Loan* Up to £500 apply to university or college

* From Financial Contingency Funds in Wales.

If you live in Wales you might be eligible for an Assembly Learning Grant

IN SCOTLAND

* No tuition fees if you are a Scottish resident and studying in Scotland

* No graduate endowment to pay if you are assessed as an independent student

* Assistance with payment of fees if studying in England, Wales or Northern Ireland

* Student loan

Other possibilities

* Mature Student's Bursary Up to £2,000 (if studying in Scotland) - apply to college or university

* Dependant's Grant Apply to The Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS)

* Lone Parent's Grant Up to £1,125 - apply to SAAS

* Lone Parent's Childcare Grant Up to £1,050 - apply to SAAS

* School Meals Grant £260 for a child aged 3-10; £280, 11-16 - apply to SAAS

See "Money: whether you have it or not" for information on NHS bursaries

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