Returning to Education

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

There are many factors that may affect the decision to return to university after a long period away from study and there are particular some challenges in particular faced by those who do not choose the traditional role of going straight to university after school. This article will offer some solutions to these challenges whether you hope to become an undergraduate or postgraduate student, and show you how to get the most out of returning to study as a mature student.

Challenge 1: I can't afford it

The financial implications of going to university for mature students are tremendously serious, just as they are for eighteen year olds. All undergraduate students can apply for a maintenance loan from the LEA if you study full time. If you have extra expenses such as dependent children or if you are disabled you may be entitled to a Disabled Student's Allowance or Parents Learning Allowance. Have a look at this website and see what you can claim:

Particular universities and departments also offer bursaries depending on the degree and subject area you are interested in. Contact someone in the admissions office or the department you are applying to. You might also find information on the university website.

For many mature students the only option is to study part time. Part-time students usually pay per module and (if they are UK students) can ask their Local Authority for help in the form of a ‘fee grant'. The LA will advise you if you are eligible for this; it will depend on your income and whether you are considered a special case.

If you want to study for a different sort of qualification (such as NVQ or BTEC) then you may be eligible for an adult learning grant. Have a look at this website:

Challenge 2: I can't write essays/reports/exams

One of the biggest fears faced by returning mature students is that their ability to do assessed work will be less than their younger counterparts because they have been outside formal education for a long time. This is almost always an issue of confidence. You have probably been using these skills in the world of work and simply not realising it. Also once you get back in the classroom you'll be surprised how much you do remember from an earlier education. Many departments offer support to students of all ages who do not feel confident in their abilities. You can attend essay writing workshops, or exam skills workshops to boost your skills in the areas where they are weakest. And don't forget that many school leavers also come to university feeling unsure that they have the ability to do what is required, so as a mature student you are not in so very different a position.

Challenge 3: My computer skills are out of date

For many degrees your research and writing will be done on a computer and you may feel unfamiliar with the latest technology. Although most people now have computers in their own homes, if you have not this doesn't mean you won't cope with university life. You will have access to computers at the university should you need them. Training will be offered to all students who need it in word processing, using spreadsheets and databases, researching online and using referencing and citation packages so you just have to have the confidence to identify the areas where you need help and ask for it!

Challenge 4: I won't fit in

It's easy to think, especially if you are about to become an undergraduate that your classmates aged eighteen will be living in a different world unable to communicate with you and leaving you feeling isolated. In contrast, actually most mature students find that the shared learning experience brings mature and school-leaver students together. Teenagers do recognise and respect the different life experiences and knowledge that mature students bring to the discussions. Despite a lack of self-confidence among mature students most actually find that once they get into the seminar room they are able to discuss topics with confidence and actually help lecturers to facilitate learning in small group environments due to their maturity and experiences with colleagues in the workplace.

Challenge 5: Friends and relatives think I am being self-indulgent/making a financial mistake

If you have been outside of the formal education system for a while or come from a non-traditional background, the decision to go to university as a mature student can cause some negative comment among friends and family. You may even encounter resistance to the decision you have taken. The two main attacks are that undertaking learning as an adult is merely self-indulgent or it is financially risky. However, you will know the reasons why you chose to do a university course and the decision to do so will have been a long and hard one, so don't listen to those who are trying to knock your ambition; instead be determined to show them how much benefit doing a university degree really can be.

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