Mature Students

Being a mature student can be more fulfilling than going to a university or college straight out of school. A little perspective, some life experience, and a different set of pressures mean that you could get a lot more out of the experience than those students for whom its just more of the same.

In fact, higher education has moved very much out the preserve of teenagers alone – 60% of undergraduates in the UK are now over the age of 21. This is partly because there are a number of innovative alternative ways to gain access to higher education institutions. Your work experience can be taken into account instead of an academic record when deciding on your application to study. There are Access courses to substitute for A levels - which we'll discuss shortly, and most institutions now also offer options which allow you to fit studies in with other commitments

Reasons to Study Later in Life

There are plenty of reasons to take on studies as a mature student. For some, it's been a cherished ambition for years; thwarted early on by circumstances like financial constraints, major life changes, or a lack of academic focus as a teenager. Some simply develop a genuine and driving curiosity over a period of time about a particular area of knowledge. For most, however, studies offer a way to improve their earning potential or job satisfaction. This could be a change in career path, or gaining the skills and qualifications that make a promotion more likely.

Many employers include some form of financial support for employees to study. Often this is tied to an agreement to stay with the company for a period of time (so that they can benefit from the investment), but these arrangements can include quite generous subsidies for your tuition fees and learning materials, as well as time off work to prepare for and write exams or submit assignments.

In addition to the process of gaining valuable new skills and qualifications; potential and existing employers often see continuing education as a very positive attribute. It strongly indicates personal drive and ambition, and can be seen as proof of a general intellectual capacity. This can be especially useful if you don't yet have a recognised qualification.

Almost all universities and higher education institutions have a significant number of “mature students”. Since these students are often perceived to be more serious about their studies, and more likely to contribute meaningfully to the learning process by virtue of their experience – special arrangements are made to ensure that access is possible. You'll find that most institutions have some form of part-time or flexi-time option, especially evening classes, to accommodate the needs of mature students. Around 40% of higher education students are making use of these options – especially those with family or work commitments.

Meeting the Qualifying Criteria

Most institutions offer Foundation Degrees or certificate and diploma courses. These are less intensive and quicker to complete – usually offering you the option to 'top up” and add modules or other certifications in the same field at a later stage. There are also study choices that don't require any prior learning or accreditation, as the base learning or 'foundation knowledge' is built into the course itself, meaning that you'll gain all of the skills and insights needed in the process of completing the course.

Many courses can be accessed using work-related qualifications like NVQs or a BTEC. In some cases, work experience and proof of on-the-job-training courses that you've been part of may also be taken into account; possibly even allowing you to qualify. You will need to speak to the admissions department of the institution you want to attend, as there's no universal policy about these kinds of credit. There is, however, a coherent approach to Access courses.

Access courses are designed to substitute for A levels. There are over a thousand different subjects that can be studied towards one. Correctly called the Access to Higher Education Diploma; it's a self-contained study system that teaches you what you need to know within the course itself, and provides you with proof that you've got the basic skill and knowledge levels required to pursue a more specific qualification at a higher education institution. There's almost certain to be an institution near you that offers this option, and they probably include part-time and evening classes for those who need them.

Paying for Your Studies

The reason for part-time and flexi-time study options is that universities and colleges are aware that mature students often need to continue earning while they study. These courses are tailored to that requirement, so you should find that the workload and deadlines for any submissions you need to make are realistic.

In addition to any financial support that your employer may offer, there are several other forms of financial help available. If you choose to do a full time course, you'll probably qualify for some form of assistance if you've got children (or adults) who are dependant on you to provide for them.

There are also many forms of student loan. As a student aged over 25, you'll be automatically classed as an 'independent student' and a specific loan agreement would be reached on that basis. If you're younger than that, but are married or have children, you'll be classed in the same category. The interest charged and repayment terms of student loans are almost always easier and less onerous than normal bank lending.

Another option which usually works out more cost effectively is 'distance learning'. These courses are offered in a way that allows you to access the material at a time that's convenient to you, study it at home at times that suit you, and submit your work remotely. This can be done online or through regular mail, and may include online networks and forums with other students, tutors and mentors, or even regular or occasional gatherings in person. They can also include exams which happen at a specific time and date at selected venues for all students simultaneously, or a system of submitting work when you complete it at your own pace.

Given the wide range of possibilities, it's recommended that you research your options as thoroughly as possible to see what suits your individual needs best. There is a fairly comprehensive publication called the Aimhigher Guide - a government initiative to broaden higher education - which can be ordered by telephone on 0845 015 0010.