When single mother of two Vickie Osborne struck up a conversation with a fellow wedding guest three years ago, an idea once dismissed as a pipe dream was suddenly a real possibility. Today, the 38-year-old with three O-levels is a first-class honours graduate looking forward to a Masters degree in psychology, following a successful three years in and out of the library at the University of Kent's Medway campus.
Having left school at 16, Vickie got caught up in a succession of low-paid office jobs and felt academically unfulfilled, but was inspired by speaking to a student who illuminated the possibility of fitting a degree course around children and family commitments. Sure enough, Vickie found completing the course alongside looking after her children - Connor, 14, and Jade, 16 - a challenging, yet ultimately rewarding experience: "As long as you're organised, it just becomes part of your daily lifestyle."
Vickie is not alone: tens of thousands across the UK are swapping the office for the lecture theatre every year. "The typical student being an 18-21 year old is a myth," suggested Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, introducing a conference on lifelong learning. "Nearly every other student in higher education is a mature student. Higher education's role in lifelong learning is growing." Today, over-25s are in the majority. The government has strongly advocated increased participation in higher education in order to preserve Britain's global economic competitiveness.
Unlike Vickie, the majority of mature students elect to study part-time in order to continue with their full-time job. A part-time undergraduate degree will typically take around five to six years to complete. Some employers may even help fund an academic course if it is relevant to the job, and around 50,000 students in the UK are currently being sponsored to study.
Those unable to gain sponsorship may be eligible to receive financial support from the Learning and Skills Council (www.learndirect-advice.co.uk/featured/alg/), in the form of an adult learning grant of up to £30 a week. Parents with younger children may also qualify for support from the Childcare Support Fund. Adult learning degrees offer not just the possibility of academic achievement and career advancement, but also of personal fulfilment.
"When you achieve something like this it shows you what you're capable of and teaches you to value yourself," says Vickie. The potential for education later in life to enrich your personal life cannot be underestimated, opening a whole new range of social opportunities.
For many, attempting a degree in later life represents a chance to lay to rest the feeling that they under-performed at school. Admission requirements are often more flexible for mature students; a range of qualifications is accepted, and access courses provided by some universities offer an entry route into higher education for those without the usual academic requirements.
Those with extensive non-academic work experience may find themselves in an enviable position when it comes to starting a degree. "Because of all my work and life experience they were happy to give me a place on the course," says Vickie. Many universities have a Continuing Education department, and in fact offer courses specifically designed for adults.
Many older students discover that once they have caught the education bug, it stays with them for life. Not content with just using her brain, Vickie now intends to study its inner workings. She has developed an interest in neuropsychology, and begins a psychology conversion course at the Open University in January, with the eventual aim of pursuing a PhD. Supported open learning of the kind practised by the Open University affords another flexible alternative for older learners who have to juggle the daily commitments of family life. Vickie's message to others is that it is never too late to start. "I just want everybody to do it now! It's an experience that will stay with me for life."
Vickie's success has also been an inspiration to her children. Jade is intent on studying law on leaving school in two years and Connor is talking about going to university. Adult learning presents a real opportunity for social mobility: parents can inspire a new generation of children who would otherwise never have considered applying.
Parents interested in investigating the option of higher education can visit their local Adult Guidance Service or careers company for help and advice. The Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) also publishes a comprehensive guide for mature students.