For more than two decades, I lived untroubled by the quiet disappointment of my parents, who had assumed I would one day go to university. But I didn’t. Getting a degree was never an ambition, and I didn’t need letters after my name to prove an intellectual point. I had Countdown for that.
But then, while working in Afghanistan, everything changed. In keeping with the fashion of the time in conflict zones around the globe, I blamed the UN.
I had toyed with the idea of joining the organisation, but despite the UN publishing a set of values that included a “respect for diversity”, this in no way applied to academic qualifications when applying for a job with it. To get a foot in the door, you needed a degree. So, at the age of 41, I enrolled at the Open University.
I chose to study part-time, because this was a vanity project rather than a pressing need, and I emerged six years later with a first-class BA (Hons) in international studies. I still don’t have a job with the UN, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I needed to see if I could do it and, clearly, I could. However, my phoenix-like ascension from classic underachiever to classroom swot had as much to do with timing as aptitude. In some respects, school is wasted on the young, and I know with absolute certainty that I would never have achieved a first if I had gone to university aged 18.
As a teenager, I wouldn’t have had the life experience I personally needed to approach an academic course with the confidence to present a convincing argument, a basic requirement in most arts subjects. Nor would I have had the editing skills needed to cram everything I wanted to say into a limited, and limiting, word count. But perhaps most importantly, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to choose a subject I was genuinely interest in.
Adele’s subject of choice is English literature. “If I hadn’t made it singing, I think I would be an English lit teacher,” the 34-year-old told fans last week . Similarly, I chose international studies because I had always enjoyed the nuts and bolts of geopolitics, which is helpful when you work in journalism.
Choosing a subject that interests you rather than pursuing a qualification to suit a career path can relieve much of the pressure that tends to come with education, making the process far more enjoyable. However, for some mature students, it’s walking into the unknown that makes adult learning one of life’s great adventures.
My friend Brian, who also came to the freshers’ party late, was in his 40s when he graduated from the OU with a first in humanities with art history. “I wandered into the National Gallery one day to get out of the rain and to take a look at what a £15m painting looked like,” he tells me. “A version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers had recently sold for about that figure.
“Once inside, I started hovering on the edge of organised groups, listening as they talked knowingly about the paintings they were looking at, and I found myself wondering what made one painting worth £15m compared with others that didn’t come close. I wanted to know more, and that’s when I took a huge leap and started an Open University course.”
After gaining a first with the OU, Brian went on to acquire an MA with distinction in art history from Birkbeck, University of London.
“I feel privileged to have been able to take my degrees in later life,” he says. “If I’d gone to university at 18, I’d have felt the need to take a subject that would have helped launch a career rather than simply study for the love of the subject itself. “I suspect I would not have enjoyed the experience as much.”
As well as studying for the sheer enjoyment of learning, another advantage of working for a degree later in life is the confidence that experience adds to your intellectual toolbox.
Although it might not work for a BSc in mathematics, in subjective subjects such as international studies there is no such thing as a correct answer: there is simply a correct way of answering a question. That is the point at which learning throws off the shackles of regurgitation and steps into exploration – where the real fun happens.
Of course, and because I am now an academic capable of looking at both sides of an argument, there is a downside of being a mature student. Studying for a degree, even part-time, takes a commitment of at least 14 hours a week, and this can be annoying when you have better things to do than perfect your Harvard referencing.
However, for those who persevere, education is the gift that has the potential to keep on giving. As is often said, knowledge is power, and working for a degree leaves you with a more agile and inquiring mind. The sense of accomplishment is also a genuine feelgood moment in a world that offers few of them.
An added bonus is that continued studying could reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Unfortunately, enrolling in any university or college costs serious money these days. However, there are a number of free or low-cost learning sites on the internet, including some that collaborate with top-ranking universities offering foundation-style courses, such as FutureLearn.
So, go out, explore, visit a gallery, stop by the library or stick on the latest Adele CD and be inspired. As Albert Einstein once said, “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” And none of us are dead yet.
Other celebrities who went back to school
Steven Spielberg: the ET director dropped out of university to pursue his film career but decided to return to education in his 50s, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in film and electronic arts from California State university in 2002.
Shakira: after a sellout world tour, the singer took a short university course in the history of western civilisation at UCLA when she was 30. She dressed as a boy to complete the summer course without being recognised.
Lenny Henry: the comedianand actor graduated from the Open University with a BA in English literature in 2007, aged 49. He went on to complete an MA in screenwriting for TV and film at Royal Holloway, University of London, followed by a PhD in the role of black people in the media.
Eva Longoria: the Desperate Housewives actor got a master’s in Chicano studies at California State University in 2018, aged 38. She attended classes in person for three years.