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STUDENT FINANCE: When maturity offers few benefits

When Ken Fletcher was made redundant he found that twenty years' experience in printing and publishing was not enough to land him another job. Employers wanted graduates.

So Ken decided to get a degree. Now 42, he has a BA Hons in English from University College London.

As last year's Mature Students Officer he understands how tough it can be combining studies and family life, as well as managing on a student budget. His three-year course has left him pounds 4,000 in debt.

"It was a shock learning to get by on pounds 3,500 a year after having an income of pounds 28,000," he says. "My children were independent and I was divorced, so I only had myself to support. But my lifestyle completely changed. I moved from a three-bedroom house to renting a one-bedroom flat near college. I seldom eat out. I spend less on clothes and entertainment. Still, it's been worth the sacrifices."

For this year's intake of mature students the sacrifices are likely to be even greater since the older students' allowance has been withdrawn for new entrants.

The allowance - which ranged from pounds 300 at the age of 26 to pounds 1,045 for those aged 29 or over - was introduced twenty years ago to help meet childcare costs and other commitments.

Judi Billing, head of student services at Middlesex University, where 40 per cent of students are 26-plus, says: "It's ironic that while we are reaching out into the community to encourage older people to return to education, the government is making it as difficult as possible for them to do so. Single mature students may be able to ease their problems by become hall wardens, for instance, so they can live rent free. Those who are parents depend heavily on our subsidised nursery facilities. Even so, I don't know how they will cope."

The University of North London has a reputation for attracting mature students: last year 1,032 students were under 21, compared to 2,350 who were older. Maureen Dyer, 28, a former nursery nurse from Leyton, east London, who has a four-year-old son, is starting her second year of a four-year BEd there.

Despite taking out pounds 2,900 so far in student loans, she is finding it hard to make ends meet. "Tyler always needs clothes, he's growing fast. He's allergic to dairy products but a litre of soya milk costs pounds 1.05. The only way to manage is to budget for the year - and make sure you get all you can.

"Last year I got a list of educational trusts from the college and I made twelve applications for support towards my childcare costs. One came through. It made all the difference.

"On the other hand, mature students have some advantages. We're used to handling money - and we've usually been through a period when we could spend as we like."