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NEVER TOO LATE TO LEARN…

The shrill bleep of your Monday morning alarm heralds that same familiar sinking feeling. Blearily stirring your coffee, you wonder if you will ever escape from this endless miserable cycle. Why do you keep being passed over for promotion, year after year after year, in favour of all these young uni grads? Whatever happened to your dreams of becoming a lawyer/nurse/web designer/delete as appropriate? “Oh well, it’s too late now” you think as you board the 7.34 for what feels like the trillionth time in your life.

Stop right there! If you’re just treading water in your current job, or if indeed you feel you are in the wrong industry altogether, don’t panic. It’s never too late to try and change things around – and further study could well be the boost your career needs. “Mature students” over the age of 21 make up a whopping third of the UK’s student population. Studying as a mature student gives you the benefit of life experience – you’re more likely to work hard and choose a course in something which will be useful to your career. On the flipside, however, trying to fit adult responsibilities such as a family and work around your studies can be difficult. There is also the small issue of funding…

If you you’ve haven’t already studied for a first degree, you’re entitled to a student loan, whatever your age. For postgraduate degrees, however, you will either need to find your own funding or secure a scholarship/bursary (this sounds daunting but is well worth a try!). You can find more information about this on the UCAS website and at www.gov.uk. College courses are generally only free to those under 19, although you may be able to secure a 24+ advanced learning loan. An increasing number of workplaces also fund relevant further study for their employees.

English and Maths GCSEs are often requested by employers and not having these can be a real hindrance. Want the good news? It’s often free – yes freeeee – to study for your GCSEs and A Levels even as an adult learner. Check out Hotcourses and see what’s available in your local area (the site caters for higher ed college courses too!). If you can’t find a free course, chances are you’ll find a very reasonable one.

Don’t fancy sitting/resitting your A-levels but want a degree? The Open University – a real favourite with mature students because of its flexible, distance-learning focused approach – could be for you. Unlike most other institutions the OU won’t ask for exam grades when you apply, let alone UCAS points. The OU’s central philosophy is about giving students from less conventional academic backgrounds a chance.

I was 27 when I signed up to study an MA in philosophy at London’s Birkbeck College (having studied a BA in English Lit straight out of school at 18). Birkbeck is much favoured by mature students as it offers an extensive range of evening-taught courses aimed at those who work during the day. As a journalist, I felt the course would help me to exercise my grey cells and branch out in my writing. At 27, I fell into the biggest age bracket on the course – between about 25 and 30. The oldest student was well into his 70s. Socialising outside class generally involved grown-up stuff like going for meals and to the theatre… or snatched conversations on the tube on the way home to put the kids to bed. Nobody even seemed to notice the £1-a-pint nights in the union bar.

My experience as a BTEC Level Three graphic design student a couple of years later was quite different. I chose this course because I was planning to go freelance as a journalist and, as a keen artist already, I decided it would be good to have another string to my bow which also related to creative media. I soon got stuck into the work, but trying to join in with conversations about GCSE graduation parties and first boyfriends when I could barely remember either of my own proved a bit of a culture shock! For the first few weeks I barely spoke and began to wonder if the whole thing was a terrible idea. Eventually, however, “Grandma Charlotte” (as they affectionately called me) was accepted as part of the gang. Having a tutor the same age as me was also a bit strange at first, but I got used to it and even grew to quite enjoy the dynamic. There were a handful of other mature students at the college and their stories were similar to mine – after initial teething problems we all felt happy and comfortable (well, except that time I did a whole piece based on cassette tapes and only myself and the tutor knew what they were, but we don’t talk about that).

Tamsin was about to turn 30 when her employers agreed to fund her through a BA in Business to complement her work within the company. Tamsin already had an HND in Performing Arts, which she started straight after leaving school. She found that her age genuinely enhanced her higher education experience the second time around. “When I went to university the first time round I was still learning who I was and adjusting to moving away from home and my existing friends for the first time,” she recalls. “I was more interested in gaining life experience than I was in going to classes and preparing for assessment. This time was different. I enjoyed going back knowing how to focus and dedicate myself to my studies, discipline myself and plan ahead.”

Rebecca, like me, also returned to study at the age of 27. “I originally studied the same degree – a BA in Digital Media – when I was 19,” she explains, “but an unplanned pregnancy meant I had to quit uni and become a stay-at-home mum.” Although the academic side of things soon fell into place, the stress of juggling family life with study was a struggle for Rebecca. “Whilst all my uni friends were out partying and going to clubs, I was rushing home to make dinners and read bedtime stories,” she recalls. “I often had to stay up till 3am to finish assignments, too, because of the kids. I guess I felt I had more to lose if I didn’t pass my modules, so I worked harder than I might have done when I was younger. I got myself into a lot of debt to complete my degree.” However, Rebecca does worry that she may not get to use her degree. “The sad thing is,” she sighs, “I’m not sure if I will ever get a job within the media field… It’s so competitive.” Was it worth it, then? “Absolutely,” she responds. “I don’t regret going to university at all, as it was a great learning experience. It prepared me for time away from my children, and helped me work to deadlines and organise and prioritise my time.”

Emi retrained as a plumber at the age of 45. “I’d been working in admin for most of my career,” she explains, “and one day I just woke up and thought, that’s enough.” For Emi, retraining as a plumber was a no-brainer: “I knew plumbing was well-paid, I’ve always been good at DIY and repairs, and I liked the idea of being a woman in a male-dominated business,” she explains. “I’d been saving up for a while with a view to having a safety blanket if I quit my current job, so I just took a deep breath and enrolled at the college.” The freedom of working for herself, as well as the pay rise, have both meant that Emi has never regretted this leap of faith.

Going back to “school” as an adult can be daunting, but Emi’s final words might just inspire you: “My friends thought I was crazy at first – but if even an ‘old lady’ like me can completely change direction, then anyone can! I can honestly say I’ve never looked back.”

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