Birkbeck is a popular choice for mature students due to the evening classes being so accommodating of people's existing schedules, but what is the mature student experience like? We spoke to students across campus to find out why they did it, what the benefits are and what challenges it brings!
In the UK, it’s now become the norm for people to go to university straight away after A-levels at 18. According to a report carried out by the House of Commons, in 2006 the higher education entry rate amongst 18-year-old in the UK increased from 24.7% to 30.7%, with 2021 seeing the highest amount at 38.2%, falling down to 37.5% in 2022.
However, whilst there has been an increase in people going straight into education, this is also accompanied by an increasing pressure on children at school needing to figure out what they are going to do at a young age as well as once they have graduated from their degree at 21. With rising numbers of people going to university at younger ages, it can be easy to forget that ultimately, there is no age limit on making these decisions, and university is always available for those that want to go, no matter their age and no matter what your reason for starting late!
A mature student is anyone over the age of 21 for an undergrad and over 25 for a postgrad, with Warwick University finding in a recent study that 40% of mature students are between the ages of 25 and 39. There’s a lot of reasons for people deciding to go to university at an older age. Some may have focused on having a family, some want a career change, some might not have known what they wanted to do at a young age, some people might just want to learn something new and throw themselves into something different. Whatever the reason, going to university at a later age, whether it’s your first time or not, is an enriching experience that can open many different doors! We spoke to some mature students about their experiences.
Why do it later?
Although it works for some people to go to university at 18, sometimes giving yourself time to develop more within the world can be beneficial, allowing more time for you to learn more life skills as well as having a clearer understanding of what you want to do.
One student who is now doing a post grad at 31 said:
“I was really pressured to figure everything out at a young age, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. I decided to do an Illustration degree after an Art foundation but ended up dropping out because it wasn’t for me. I moved abroad and really grafted working loads of different jobs for minimum wage. I began developing more interests as I got older and learnt more about the world and myself and began doing activism and volunteering, helping vulnerable and isolated people in London make and sell their art as well as having a space where they could socialise. I felt like I wanted to get a job that could contribute to social change and thought I need to learn more about society and inequality, so I decided to give university another shot and do a degree in Social Science at Birkbeck. 10 years ago, I would never have believed I would be here but I’m now graduating with a 1st and doing a Postgrad!”
For others, going to university later in life can also open doors within their current careers, such as another student who is currently doing a bachelor's at 46, “I decided to go to university because I've done my job for 20 years but have no formal qualifications. It means I'm passed over for promotion despite being really good at my job...It's a very specific way of working that I haven't done in 25 years and sometimes, I find it nerve wracking, worrying I won't be able to do it. However, being a mature student does mean I have life experience to draw on. Plus, for me I'm not just doing because I don’t know what to do or I don’t want to start work yet. I really want this achievement!”
What are the pros?
Having life experience to apply was a very shared benefit of studying later that the students we asked all agreed on. One student, who began their degree in 2019 at age 27 said, “I found that my age and life experience gave me a great foundation when talking about social issues in class, for example, being a queer person who grew up in the shadow of Section 28 at school, experiencing classism from growing up on a council estate in the 90’s and 2000’s and also having lived in another country pre-Brexit. These were all topics that came up at one point and a lot more that my classmates of all ages had direct experience with. I think having such a wide range of age groups and nationalities all discussing things that we have lived through makes for some of the most interesting and exciting discussions. You aren’t just learning from the teachers and the readings; you are learning from each other.”
As well as this, having the discipline as a mature student also provides a different learning experience. Another student explained, “I was 26 when I started my MA! Personally, I’m glad I waited, especially as mine was so specialized. I was able to get more life experience first and to find the discipline and motivation for self-directed study which I really struggled with at school and undergrad. It also meant I really had the time to think about if it was what I really wanted to do, while figuring other things out and getting some experience working for a few years first.”
Further to this, another student mentioned "Being a mature student benefited me at that time cause my headspace was in the right place. Being financially independent was also a really important factor as I was working and only had a little bit of a student loan. This made me feel like I really needed to crack on seriously with it and gave me motivation to do it properly and finish it!"
Are there any challenges?
As you get older, quite often you have more financial responsibility and work commitments, which can be challenging to juggle work and studying. However, there can also be benefits to this too! One student added, “I could never afford to do an MA before, and it’s still hard doing it whilst working full time, but my work is part sponsoring me now!”
As well as this, there is the adjustment of being back in education again and adapting to a new schedule and way of learning. Another student who is 38 mentioned, “I hadn’t been studying for many years, so I had to re-learn that, as well as learning how to use a computer as I didn't have one before. That was a steep learning curve but somehow, I managed!”
Our recently elected Mature Students’ Officer here at Birkbeck, Enrico also shared his journey with us too:
“I started creating software when I was a child and I have never stopped. Today, I’m a technical director in an insurance company but I always want to learn something new and improve my knowledge. I saw a few friends of mine started Birkbeck and I noticed that they increased their cultural background a lot. I was hesitant for a few years but this year I decided to start Birkbeck too; I wasn’t sure what university could give me, but I started. From the beginning, I enjoyed returning in class with other people and discuss and exchange opinions on different topics. I re-discovered how nice it is to study new subjects. Starting university gave me a new reason to wake up in the morning energized, with new goals for the day and long-term goals that I want to perceive. Although I have a job and other hobbies and activities, I decided to find time to dedicate to the university to improve, in primis, myself and my knowledge. I found a nice team of people that can support me and also support my project with the Pioneeer program. I’m so happy to start this new adventure.”
From all of the students we spoke to, it's clear that there are many benefits for mature students! From life experience, to starting a degree with existing discipline and motivation for self directed study, to furthering an existing career to having a clearer idea of what you want to do and goals for the future. Although there sure are challenges, these can also lead to you developing more skills such as time management and working with technology that might not have been accessed before. Overall, it further certifies how being a mature student can be a positive and fantastic step to take with multiple benefits!