Reporter 412, 15 December 1997

Life at Leeds as seen through mature eyes

Dearing has recommended that funding for university expansion should be targeted at institutions with a commitment to widening participation. With one in three undergraduates joining the University over the age of 21 Leeds is well placed to continue opening up access to non-traditional entry students. The Reporter spoke to six people about the reality of life as a mature student.

“When you start to look older than the lecturers then you really know you’re getting old” – perhaps one of the less appealing aspects of being a mature student at Leeds, but the least of a list of worries including childcare problems, paying the mortgage and upheavals to family life. But in spite of the complications which come with taking the non-traditional route to university, the six students the Reporter spoke to had no regrets about embarking on a degree. The students come from the School of Computer Studies where one in three students on the Information Systems course are non-traditional entrants and the Department of Sociology and Social Policy with one in five of its full-time students coming via a non-traditional route.

"I couldn't imagine spending all my life with one company"

“We’re all happy to be here but it’s been a long and winding road” says Neill Rank, a 32 year old Information Systems student. All the students had thought long and hard about coming to university. It involved losing income, often from ending jobs they had been doing for many years, uprooting themselves and rethinking or even ending long-term relationships.

“I had a horrible image of being handed a watch at the age of 65 – I couldn’t imagine spending all my life with one company” said Neill. “I felt stuck in a rut and really wanted a new direction,” said former bank manager Paula Brailsford. For some, coming to Leeds also meant a change of location. Roland Brown, a 34 year old third year Information Systems student, decided to combine getting back into education with moving away from London.

Reactions to their decisions were mixed. Neill’s boss told him he was daft to be leaving a good job for an uncertain future, and Alan Rhodes, a 42 year old Sociology and Social Policy student, was asked what he was running away from. “Eighteen year olds just have to think about whether they’ve got the right A-levels and they can always pack up and go home to their parents if it goes wrong. Going to university is really a soft option for them but we have to think really hard about it,” says Neill. “A lot of people said I was ‘brave’ which really made me think twice!”

These students found the University welcomed them as mature students, although for some there were problems with gaining recognition for work done through the Open University. Paula, 29, transferred from another institution after becoming disillusioned with it after only a few months – “there’s no point taking three years out of your life to get a degree from somewhere that doesn’t count.” She was impressed with how administrative and academic staff handled her transfer and Leeds’ strong academic reputation was a vital attraction for all the students.

Freshers’ Week was bewildering, they agreed. “It’s quite stressful being surrounded by drunken eighteen year olds with traffic cones on their heads;” and there was a general feeling of relief when they found other mature students through a society. Paula Brailsford shared a flat with four eighteen year old girls and found herself being “quite stand-offish” as she didn’t want them to think she was “being mum.” Paula Vaz-Carreiro, a 33 year old computer science student from Portugal, suggested accommodation for solely mature students would be a good idea.

The group found that their younger counterparts often assumed they were lecturers, and even when they realised they were also first years were still in awe of them. Mature students were also noticeable by the fact they sit at the front in lectures – but there was some debate as to whether this was because they were keener to learn or their eyesight was deteriorating with age.

Tutors and lecturers were felt to react differently to mature students. “I think they’re glad of us and glad of the interaction” says John Elliott – a 42 year old studying information systems with artificial intelligence with plans to go on to a PhD. Roland agreed: “I called lecturers by their Christian name from the start. I see them as people and don’t have the school ethos some eighteen year olds bring with them.” Paula Brailsford finds it frustrating if lecturers talk to her like a teenager, but said on the whole most people relate to her better than that and both sides get more out of it.

"I would say 'go for it' to anyone considring doing a degree"

Getting to grips with the work was a shock for some who had been out of education for years. “At work you have a set pace with a manager hassling you to get everything done,” says Neill. “I worked for ten years and then having to discipline yourself to work at home and not go out was a bit of a shock.” Roland felt he was helped by having studied with the Open University – “I was in the study mode, but wasn’t used to the quantity of study that was expected.” They have found their departments to be very supportive, for example by extending deadlines when childcare crises happen.

Fitting in study time at home can be a challenge. Alan’s wife works and he knows that he’ll find it difficult to study after 3.30 when his children come home from school. John works part-time so he can’t study at all at weekends. But their children support what they’re doing. Alan’s 14 year old son told him he should have gone to university when he was 18 like everyone else – Alan replied “I know, so just you make sure you do it!”

All the students felt tuition fees, due to be introduced next year, will make all students more demanding, but particularly mature students. They agreed students would feel more like customers and demand the right level of service, and as mature students have sacrificed more to get here and are funding themselves they’ll be more likely to complain.

There were no regrets about becoming students. “When I was at work I thought ‘In ten years time I could be laid off or I could be here forever’ and I took the opportunity to do a degree and hopefully get a better job. Nobody can take a degree off you – you’ll always have it,” said Neill. Although it’s not something to be entered into without a lot of thought, they would all recommend doing a degree. OU modules are a good way of seeing if people are suited to a degree. “If you can do that and a full time job and run a house then you know you can do this” says Paula Brailsford. “It’s hard to come here and even harder to stay but I would say ‘go for it’,” says Neill, with the rest nodding in agreement.

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