For more than over 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.
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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 extended to the type of diversity that I – a white, middle-class, non-disabled woman – could bring to the table.
The final straw came when a UN security officer told me my job was “not a career”. At that moment, I decided to go back to university and get a degree.
I wasn’t alone in this decision. In the UK, the number of mature students has been on the rise for years, with nearly one in four undergraduates now over the age of 21. And it’s not just women like me who are returning to education later in life; men are increasingly doing so too.
There are many reasons for this trend. For some, it’s a case of wanting to retrain for a new career. For others, it’s simply a desire to learn more about a subject they’re passionate about.
But there’s another, more surprising reason mature students find their way into our universities’ lecture halls and libraries: they make great academics.
A recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) found that mature students outperform their younger counterparts in nearly every measure of academic success. They’re more likely to get first-class degrees, less likely to drop out, and more likely to go on to postgraduate study.
There are several theories as to why this might be the case. One is that having spent more time in the “real world”, mature students are more motivated to succeed at university. They know what it’s like to work long hours for little pay and don’t want to return.
Another theory is that mature students are simply more prepared for university life. They’ve usually had a few years to figure out who they are and what they want from life to approach their studies with a greater sense of purpose.
Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that mature students are a valuable asset to our universities. They bring a wealth of life experience and prove that it’s never too late to learn.
So, if you’re considering returning to university later in life, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too old. You might surprise yourself.
What do you think? Are mature students top of the swots? Let us know in the comments below.