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Life as a Mature Student

I first met Alan in third-year Russian class, where we bonded over our joint struggle to get to grips with the nightmarish agglomeration of case endings and grammar rules that the language threw our way. I was impressed by the energy and enthusiasm he put into his work compared to his slovenly twenty-year-old counterparts, still reeling from the after-effects of last night’s drunken escapades and lugubriously counting away the hours until their next paracetamol fix. As a middle-aged man, Alan is in a minority all of his own against the backdrop of the predominantly young female demographic that makes up the Russian department’s student body. From previous conversations I had had with him, I knew this was something he is very conscious of, but I was eager to find out whether this sense of ‘otherness’ has impacted his university experience at all and whether, in a more general sense, mature students face any additional challenges – academic or otherwise – that their younger colleagues do not. So I arranged an interview.

I began by asking him about his career and what had motivated his decision to go back to university later on in life. In his response, he conveyed a sense of regret at not having pursued the university path earlier. Instead, he left school at sixteen after getting seven O-Levels and “joined the cops”. The only learning he did in the police was purely work-related.

In the early 2000s, he was part of a police team whose work centred around prisons. It was then that his monitor gave him the opportunity to learn a language, with the options being Arabic and Russian. Alan suspects that the main reason Arabic was offered was because “Islamic terrorism was a big thing at the time” and it was thought that learning the language would “make the team more resilient” in the face of this threat. He jokes that the monitor “obviously didn’t realise how long it took to learn a language”. He enrolled on the Arabic course, which was run by the University of Westminster. Although part-time, the four years he spent there gave him a taste for the university experience, and he vowed that, once he had retired, he would return to higher education to pick up Arabic again

In 2018, after a long career in the Met Police, he gave up work and immediately looked for universities that offered courses in Arabic. His top choices were Glasgow and St Andrews. What clinched his decision to study at the latter was that, “as luck would have it”, his cousin had a house in Dundee. Though he had applied solely for Arabic, he got the opportunity to choose a second language, so “just for a bit of fun” (little did he know), he settled on Russian.

I then asked him about the application process, curious to know whether it is the same for mature students as it is for any other. He relayed that St Andrews “really helpfully and compassionately have what they call an alternative pathways scheme, which, if you are an adult who has been away from formal education for more than three years, you can apply for”.

At first, he had no idea what to expect. Knowing that St Andrews is a “really prestigious university”, he was anxious that there might be some kind of “snobbery” or “judgemental attitude” towards him, as he only did seven O-Levels. However, to his surprise, he found that the university “honestly couldn’t have been more helpful, couldn’t have been more open door”.

“Joanna Fry, the lady at admissions, was absolutely amazing”. Joanna is the Education Liaison Officer for Lifelong and Flexible Learning, which means that she looks after the university’s full- and part-time mature students. “She was obviously very skilled at dealing with my sort of person: somebody that wanted to return to education. I hadn’t been in education for 32 years and yet they were really compassionate, really sensitive about the whole thing, and it was really open door”.

Alan rushes to qualify his statement that it was like “pushing open doors”, noting that the application process was by no means easy and that he really had to prove himself. After filling in an application form for part-time study, in January 2019, he had to take a five-week-long ‘study skills’ course, where he was taught all the essentials: things like “good academic practice, how to structure an essay, how to give a presentation”. He adds, “That really gave me the mindset - the psychological template to work off”. As part of the study skills programme, he had to take credited courses in Management and Ancient History. “If I had flunked those”, he states, “I wouldn't have got in”.

On top of this, he had to “evidence what other measures [he] was taking to want to come to university”. He talked about the fact that he volunteered at the Russian school in Dundee and attended Arabic and Russian evening language classes run by the university. “So it was not like come on let’s have you, it's like: we want good students and this is the procedure you have to go through. And I did all that because that's what I wanted to do”.

I asked whether it was a difficult transition going from the world of work to a university environment. He says that the study skills course helped a lot but that, although his police work involved a lot of writing and compiling reports, there was no “academic writing or reading”, so this was something he had to get used to quickly. Nevertheless, one skill he was able to transfer across from his time in the Met was “evidencing things” and “corroborating what I say”. For Alan, the transition was abated by the fact that, for the first two years, he was a part-time student, so he was not thrown straight into the deep end. “What the university did for my first and second year was (because there was no evening course for Arabic and Russian)…they just let me jump in with the full-time students”. It was only in third year that he was launched into the high-pressured atmosphere of full-time study.

If not so many academic challenges, then there surely must have been considerable difficulties with fitting in socially, I posit. Without hesitation, he asks if I have come across the concept of ‘otherness’ in any of my courses, before going on to say: “This is the first time in my life I think I’ve felt ‘other’, because I’m at least 30 years older than all my peers”. Whether or not this sense of otherness is self-applied or imposed on him by other students, he didn’t say. It’s hardly surprising, though, that the age gap would put some constraints on a mature student’s social life.

This is not to say that Alan has had no contact at all with his academic colleagues. “I still associate with lots of people - people still talk to me - but I don’t hang around with a group of friends all the time. I’ll occasionally chat to people or have a coffee with them though”. He adds, “I don’t make friends here in the same way you would”.

He is by no means alone as a mature student, however. When I asked him whether there is a community of such students, he replied: “There’s a group called the lifers, who come in through the alternative pathways scheme. They tend to meet down in the computer room [in Butts Wynd]. So, yeah, there is, but I don’t have the time. I’m a full-time student now”. The lifers are, in the main, part-time students.

I comment on the fact that he seems to put so much effort into his degree and speculated that this might be a common characteristic of mature students. Whereas many younger students go to university simply because that’s the done thing, mature students have all made a conscious decision to drop whatever else they were doing in order to return to higher education. Alan says, “I’ve come here to learn what I’m interested in and that’s what I’m doing”. In other words, for him – as for many other mature students – the point of going to university at a later stage in his life is to get the most he can from the academic experience. The social aspect very much takes a back seat as far as Alan is concerned. “It would be nice to be sociable, but it would just interfere with my studying in all honesty, so I think I spend more time studying than most of the younger students”. He remarks, “I think having more time will certainly make you concentrate more, whereas if you are going to dinner or having a party or meeting your academic siblings or family, and doing whatever else you do socially, then that’s gonna take up time”.

This is not to say he thinks younger students are slobbish, however. “There’s always that grumpy adult perception of what young students are like, but being [a student] now I honestly see how much pressure they put you under here. I think it’s immense!” For Alan, third year was a particular struggle, not least because he went from being a part-time to a full-time student. “It was literally like being back at work - the worst part of work!”

There are, of course, other commitments that come with being a mature student, such as family, a part-time job, owning a house, and so on, but Alan is an exception. He comments, “I don’t have that many responsibilities – I don’t have a wife or kids. I’ve got the cats. So really, I’m in a fortunate position where I've got the time to spend on [my degree] because I don't have as many responsibilities as someone my age would normally have”.

If mature students generally have more in the way of extra commitments and responsibilities, they have less to worry about when it comes to thinking about their plans post-university: “I’ve had my thirty years of my chosen career. What I am gonna do in the future, I’ve no idea. I don’t know if anyone is gonna employ me at 56, with whatever level of Russian I have then. For the minute this is like, in inverted commas, ‘fun’ for me”. Though he doesn’t have a solid game plan, he says he would definitely like to put his degree to good use after university. “I don't know how or where or why, but I would definitely like to keep the language up. To learn and be fluent in the language is my thing. I know I will keep it going ….. I would definitely spend a couple of months abroad in Latvia or Lithuania”.

I rounded off the interview by asking whether he would recommend going to university to prospective mature students. The first thing he says is this: “If you spend a certain amount of time in a certain job you start to think a certain way. Here has definitely expanded my thinking, a hundred percent. And not just educated me in Russian language and literature, but it has also allowed me to listen to different people’s opinions: people that are thirty odd years younger than me. I’m interested in how they process this information, how they deliver their presentations, how they perceive literature. I would definitely recommend people to go back to uni, just to expand their mind”. Without a hint of sarcasm, he comments, “The working world is not half as good”.

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