August can be an anxious time for mature students. If your decision to return to education has been a life-changing one, if you've thought long and hard about the course you've applied for and know where you hope it will lead, it can be devastating to find you don't have the right grades to take it up.
But don't despair. There are thousands of opportunities still available, and in many ways the short, sharp process of Clearing is ideally suited to older students, whose individual bundles of life skills, work experience and educational qualifications can show admissions tutors at a glance what they are made of.
In addition, many universities can help you put in place missing entry qualifications. So provided you are either prepared to think flexibly about what course to take, or willing to commit some extra time to your original ambitions, the world of higher education is still wide open to you. And, of course, all this also holds true if you are one of the many mature students who decide at the last minute that they would like to embark on a course this autumn.
In fact, Clearing could offer opportunities you haven't thought of before. Eight years ago, Andrew Pattinson, 40, planned to give up his life as a shop owner to train for a career in optometry at Bradford University. He studied A-level biology and physics to get in but his grades fell far short of what was required.
However the university invited him in for an interview and offered him a place on a medical engineering degree course. It suggested he take a foundation year to make up his entry qualifications and paid for him to take an open learning maths course. "My maths was horrendous," he admits, "and in the first year I only got 11 per cent. However, I struggled through and kept working at it and I finally graduated with a first-class honours degree." Now he is doing a sponsored pharmacology PhD, while also pursuing a career which takes him travelling to Germany and Japan.
Former hairdresser Sharon Grimmond was another mature student who switched courses in August when she realised the part-time business studies course she was doing at the University of East London was not right for her. "I actually didn't go through Clearing because I was at the university already, but I was really glad I decided to change."A full-time IT course at the university suited her better, and a work placement in her final year led to a job as a webmaster with the London Borough of Newham, which she loves. "I'm now thinking of doing a Master's in website strategy."
Although popular courses in areas such as law and nursing are filling up fast, there is still a huge range of opportunities available, in subjects both mainstream and esoteric. You can apply for almost anything, from environmental and coastal management at Bournemouth University, to sociolinguistics at Essex University, or educational studies at York University.
At Greenwich University, where three quarters of students are over 21, there are places available across the board, including on two of the university's newest courses: football coaching with sports science, and forensics.
The university's school of health and social care offers a range of courses in nursing, social work and and psychology, which are particularly popular with women re-training after having had their families. Half of its students are over 26 "and mostly they come in from access courses,which we run with eight partnership colleges", says Pat Pass, the school's recruitment and marketing officer. "Usually people have worked out in advance what they want to do, because they've got mortgages and families, and a lot of things they can't just throw over their shoulder like 18-year-olds, but we get an awful lot of enquiries at this time about courses for next year."
At Birkbeck, University of London, which specialises in part-time higher education for mature students, there are still places on four-year degree courses in, among other things, film and media, history of art, mathematics and statistics, French studies, and science for society. "It's quite a commitment doing something several nights a week on top of a full-time job," says media officer Catherine Doherty, "but people come to us because they want a personal challenge and to meet new people." Anyone interested in Birkbeck's courses, she says, should come along to an open day - the next is on 3 September - to see what's on offer.
When phoning around, make sure you speak to the right person. To enquire about getting onto a particular course, contact the admissions tutor. For more general advice, ask to speak to someone experienced in dealing with mature students - many places now have specialist advisers. In addition, many universities, particularly those with a high proportion of older students, will also be able to advise you on financial support and how best to build any entry qualifications you are missing.
Ted Hill, deputy leader on the modular access foundation programme at the University of Derby, where 50 per cent of students are over 21, has been fielding calls from disappointed A-level candidates since the results came out. "Overall, we take in about 450 people a year on our programme. Their ages range from their early twenties to 74; we have an open access policy and we interview people individually to see what they need."
Older students now make up more than half the student population, and all universities have a significant proportion. However Alan Coleman, national president of the Mature Students Union, warns that just because a university has a high proportion of mature students doesn't always mean they look after them well. "There are those who couldn't care less once you've got your money." And some lecturers, he says, don't like the challenge of older students who come to classes willing to argue and question.
Because of things like this, it really pays to do as much homework as possible - even at the 11th hour. If you get several offers through Clearing, go to open days, talk to admissions tutors and try to pick up word-of-mouth reports from other students. And if you still have doubts, consider taking time to do a short taster course before committing yourself to the long haul of a degree.
It pays to know exactly what you want - as Andy Holland, 27, found out. When he failed to get the A-levels he wanted, he did them again. When he still failed to get into his first-choice university to study archaeology, he took up his second offer at University College London. But when he got there, he didn't like it, so he hit the phones and got four further offers through Clearing. He checked out newspaper reports, spoke to a careers officer, and visited universities before making a decision. "In the end I chose Bradford because they were one of the only places in the UK dedicated to scientific archaeology," he says. He also liked the fact that the campus was close by the city and that his department was well equipped.
"My advice to anyone going through Clearing is don't worry about your A-level results," he says. "To be honest, A-levels are a hurdle you have to get over to move onto the next level. Once you're there, it doesn't matter anymore what grades you've got. I've no regrets about the choices I've made."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies