What life is like as a mature student

Jenessa Williams

It's never too late to learn something new, as these mature students demonstrate

As the final term of the school year beckons ever closer, students up and down the UK are filling out revision cards, planning open day visits, and wondering where the future might take them. However, the country’s 18-year-olds are not the only ones plotting out their hopes for higher education. UCAS reports that over 3,000 people aged 50+ applied to university in 2019, and according to retirement experts, Responsible Life, mature applications are growing more than three times faster than those of school leavers. But why are so many older adults flocking back to the classroom? We spoke to three third-year mature students to find out what the experience of undergraduate life has meant to them.

 

Having left the publishing industry in her fifties, Christina chose Nottingham Trent University to follow her passion for animal biology. She credits the experience as a transformative one for her self-confidence, both inside and outside the classroom.

“My background is in the arts, so I wanted to see if I could keep up with a science degree. I was a carer for my parents when I was 18, so I didn’t have the opportunity to go to university then. I was a little nervous, and cynically worried, that I was just making up Nottingham’s numbers of non-straightforward applications, but I was actually treated the same as all the other students.

I'm definitely a bit of a mum figure to some of my course mates, but that’s fine—friendship grows in different ways. I’ve been invited to all the club nights and such which I haven’t really taken up, but I’ve done lots of volunteering, so there have been plenty of opportunities to extend my knowledge and experience.

Nottingham Trent has a good reputation within the city. It’s a beautiful rural campus and everybody on the open day was so welcoming and ready to help me. Choosing the right university is so important, because if you feel like you can’t belong there, you’re not going to be able to do your best. The work is stressful of course, but the care and feedback is fantastic.

"It's given me the confidence to speak up again, to join in and be part of society. I was shrinking inside the little world of my house"

My family have been so supportive too—my husband is retired now and has taken on lots of the housework and the support of our autistic son so that I can study. My daughter has already got her degree—she studied anthropology—and she’s been great helping me get perspective if I'm struggling a bit with the workload.

I’ve applied for a few jobs at the university for when I graduate, and I’m also considering other qualifications, maybe going back to the arts—I feel a little restricted writing in the factual nature of the sciences, but I’ve learned so much about critical thinking.

I would recommend adult study to anyone, even if it’s just college, so they can feel that connection and support. That’s what I missed—going in regularly and having a bunch of people to talk to. Especially if your confidence has been knocked over the years or you have a little bit of imposter syndrome —you need that support from people who see you as a person and not just a mum or a wife.

It’s really given me the confidence to speak up again, to join in and be part of society. I was shrinking inside the little world of my house. I feel a lot more 3D now.”

 

74-year-old Michael chose to study history of art at The University of Leeds following his retirement. He was drawn to the institution by its flexible foundation course at the Lifelong Learning Centre (LLC).

“I’d been retired four years, when a friend suggested university. I thought he was joking—I was rubbish at school and failed my 11 plus. But we love to compete over Mastermind and University Challenge, and he thought I’d enjoy the challenge. And he was absolutely right!

I did a foundation course first, which was part time at the University Lifelong Learning Centre (LLC), two nights a week and the odd Saturday. I did quite well, and that gave me the confidence to do a full-time, three-year degree. I’m passionate about art, and I always wanted to be here for the journey and not the destination. That sounds really corny, but it was the truth in my case.

Initially it was a bit strange assimilating with my course mates. They were all 18, straight out of sixth form or college. Over time though, they’ve all been fine—now, we all get on really well and there’s no issues. I’ve made plenty of friends—I’m a member of the mature students society, and I do some volunteering through the LLC, chatting to prospective students about my experience of coming to university. I tell them my story and basically encourage them to give it a go—you’ve got nothing to lose. I like to think I’ve convinced a few of them.

"I needed routine in my life, I needed purpose. I'm not going to spend my day in the bookies or the pub. If you've got a passion for something, you should pursue it"

In terms of the workload, I would say I’m quite disciplined. I live on my own, and I’m a morning person, so I’ll crack on from about 8am to 3pm in the afternoon, with occasional breaks. And then I’ll think; right, I’ve earned a rest! There are pressures, but it’s all what you put on yourself. You may have deadlines, but it’s about working smart. As a mature person, you bring life skills with you, and you know more about managing your time. There have been odd times where I’ve wondered why I’m putting myself through this, but then the camaraderie we have with the few of us who’ve stuck together as pals coming through the foundation course, we all help each other along. I’m really impressed with all the support the university has with mindfulness and the like too. I think when you get older, you might feel as though you need support, but you’re often reluctant to ask for it or say, "I’m having a meltdown". It’s probably a bit of a male thing, the stiff upper lip of being a 74-year-old. But peer support is so powerful, and it’s important to remember that it was a choice—I’m here for me, not for anybody else.

I have no regrets at all. [Enrolling] was the best piece of advice I’ve received in years, especially post-retirement. I needed routine in my life, I needed purpose. I’m not going to spend my day in the bookies or the pub. If you’ve got a passion for something, you should pursue it. I’ve learned so much and when I graduate, I’m really looking forward to getting back into my writing—I’m currently working on an art thriller. I feel very grateful for my student loan—as a retired person I’m unlikely to get another job where I’m earning enough that I reach the threshold where I'm required to start paying it back. I couldn’t have afforded the payments on my own, but if I get a best-seller out of it, I will very happily pay it back!

 

Audrey, 44, is in her final year of Geography at St Andrews University, having followed a general degree course offered by the university to those coming from alternative academic backgrounds. 

“I never planned to study, but then I got made redundant. I’d worked in a rubber factory for 17 years, and when they decided to close, they offered me some severance money. I thought I might look into doing something at college, and when I enquired there they suggested I might be interested in undertaking a Scottish wider access qualification. St Andrews happened by accident too—a woman came in from the university to talk to us and explained that they were very supportive of people from different backgrounds. So I handed in the UCAS form thinking, it’s a top three university, they’ll never want me, but luckily they did!

I didn’t come in on a straight-forward Geography degree. What St Andrews do for students coming through alternate routes, or STARs as they like to call us, is they allow you to undertake any three modules that could lead to a specific pathway. It was only when I got to third year that I moved specifically onto the geography programme. It’s not an option in a lot of places, but I think here, they understand that if you’ve been out of education for a long time, you might struggle a little to know exactly what you want to do.

"It's so fun when you're older, because you care so much less about other people's opinions of you and you're not afraid to speak out and get the most out of things"

The general degree was a real mix of people aged 17-70, but I was lucky that six of us on the course I knew from college. As three of us do geography, we could all go through it together. It definitely made the whole friend-making thing a bit easier. The university really looks after us too—we all commute in from places outside of St Andrews and they give us a common room where we have free tea and coffee, showers, microwaves—we have our own community there that I suppose mimics what other students get from halls of residence. None of my friends at other universities had anything like this, so I feel really grateful.

I’ve gotten quite involved in everything from day one—a lot of the folk who come to St Andrews seem very mature and sensible and they’re all quite academically focused. I thought, you’re the young ones, you’re supposed to be partying it up, maybe you might need to relax a little! My friend's freshers weeks back when we were 17 and 18 were way more crazy than anything I’ve seen here. The young ones are so stressed and under pressure about making the right decisions and doing amazingly at everything to get the right career. I think that’s why it’s so fun when you’re older, because you care so much less about other people’s opinions of you and you’re not afraid to speak out and get the most out of things.

University is such an expensive undertaking for people nowadays, and I feel very lucky that up here in Scotland I get my education paid for. I just never want to go back to work! I keep telling all my younger course mates to consider that MA or chase their dreams, because once they’re out in the work place, they’ll be doing it long enough. 

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