Angela Loftus, who began retraining at 57

A Mature Approach

17th May 2019

UNESCO’s Learning to Be: The World of Tomorrow report, published in 1972, asserted that education should be ‘universal and lifelong’ and proposed that UN Member States adopt this concept to underpin their education policies.

The principle is by now a global norm – although interpretations vary widely – but whether the process is formal or informal, whether the motivation is for personal growth or career change, the EU-funded BeLL (Benefits of Lifelong Learning) study in 2014 found that people who engage in lifelong learning are better able to manage the social challenges of a constantly changing world. Heather Harris meets some 'mature' students who have taken this ethos to heart…

Never did I imagine that a pen and paper could have such impact – but reaching for these items drew positive gasps of astonishment from fellow students on my recent Diploma Course at Oaklands College, St Albans.

Such tools – perhaps like me – were considered out of date. Whilst the remainder of the class ‘copied’ a diagram of a heart from the ‘blackboard’ (actually an interactive whiteboard) by taking a photo on their phone and downloading or uploading into some cloud somewhere, I drew it longhand. This is because I was 30 years older than my fellow Anatomy and Physiology Students.

Lucy Lawrence had a similar experience when, aged 43, she returned to university in Oxford to complete a science-based Access Course, in order to fulfil her dream of becoming an Occupational Therapist.

“Whilst everyone else struggled with the Maths and English lessons, it was Computer Studies that floored me,” she says. “I’d never even heard of Word, let alone Excel. The others couldn’t believe it!”
I’m pleased to say that, in both our cases, our fellow students could not have been more helpful and supportive – even when I reminded the lecturer that he’d forgotten to set us homework…

Because that’s the thing with ‘mature students’ – we’re an annoyingly ‘swotty’ lot. As Lucy explains, “I got 2 Es and an O at A Levels when I was 18, and never answered a question in class once… now my hand shoots up before the teacher has even finished her sentence! I’ve been given this second chance, I’m not going to waste it.”

Lucy decided to retrain as an OT despite running a successful creative company called Gooseberry Tart. “I was recently divorced with two children and no pension, so knew I needed a career which brought in a regular income and this meant getting a qualification.”

For 31-year-old William Lockwood from Bristol the impetus to enrol at the University of Hertfordshire came about literally by accident.

“I left school at 18 with two GCSEs in Art and Music and did all sorts of casual jobs. Then, when I had an injury at work, I started talking to my solicitor and reading up on law and quickly realised I enjoyed using my brain.”

He enrolled on an Open University Course, but found that he wanted to physically study with other people just like his friends, who by now had all completed their degrees.

“They were really encouraging, though, and my parents were ecstatic when I began studying for a BSc in Computer Science (Artificial Intelligence). I finally left home, too, and moved into a house with 18-year-old ‘freshers’.”

Now in his second year, William admits to being far more motivated to study than his younger housemates – and also far better at cleaning the kitchen! He hopes to use his degree to pursue a career in ‘robotics or artificial intelligence’ but his studies have given him more than the prospect of a blossoming career in a growing industry, they’ve also altered his mindset. “My thoughts about learning have changed. I’ve been given the freedom to learn at my own pace and if I need to ask for help now, the answer is only an email away.”

Sadly, success stories like these are in the minority. In 2012 the introduction of the new rate of tuition fees meant that any student who had already completed a qualification would be refused further funding, so would have to pay the full annual fees: currently £9,250 if you choose to study full time and £6,935 if you study part time.

As Julie Kelly, Head of the Student Centre at the University of Hertfordshire, tells me, “Mature student numbers are massively down across all universities because people can’t afford to self-fund. The Government simply didn’t see the implications of their policy change and really need to have a rethink.”

She goes on to speak passionately about her belief in ‘lifelong’ learning and the desire for education to be for all ages – including the so-called Silver Studiers (which, sadly, I realise I now qualify as!).
“We want our University intake to be as diverse as possible not just 18-21-year olds.”

Forty-year-old mother of four Majeda Dewan Islam took the option of funding herself as she saw it as a long-term investment. “I really wanted to be a qualified teacher so knew this was the only way.”
She enrolled on an Access to Teaching course which focused on English and History and soon found it was useful at home too. “I could help my 16- and 14-year-olds with their homework whilst I did mine.”

Out of 30 students who started the course it was the 19- and 20-year olds that dropped out. “I kept telling them, ‘you think this is hard? Try doing it at my age’ but, of course, they wouldn’t listen!”
Majeda cannot praise the support of her lecturers enough; they in turn genuinely enjoyed the diversity which she brought to their lessons.

When her fellow students would roll into class having been up all-night clubbing, Majeda would sympathise about their lack of sleep, having been awake with her two-year-old.
She is now studying for English and History at degree level and was proud to receive a 2:1 for her first assignment. “It made all the late-night studying worth it,” she told me, “My dream career is in sight.”

Physiotherapy is the dream career for 52-year-old Group Property Director Paul Guyer, who is about to use a ‘windfall’ to fund a diploma course in Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology, followed by a three-year vocational degree course.

“I will actually be at uni the same time as my 19-year-old son and, in fact, may still be there by the time my 15-year-old daughter starts,” he observes, adding that his interest in how the body works stems from multiple injuries suffered through years of rugby, cycling and triathlons. “I last studied 34 years ago but I keep thinking because I’m so interested in the subject I’ll be really motivated!”

Paul is starting at St Mary’s University in Twickenham in February, much to the amusement of his male friends, but with the full support of his wife, “who is delighted I will be at lectures and not at home under her feet.”

It was the husband of 57-year-old Angela Loftus who suggested she embark on a new direction in life after he took early retirement and their fourth child began his A Levels.

“I knew I didn’t want to get the 7.30am commuter train into London with my briefcase and I’d always been interested in nutrition so I set about researching how to qualify,” she recalls. Four years later, and with a three-month intensive Physics, Chemistry and Biology course followed by a degree in Nutrition, under her belt, Angela is running a successful business, Nutrition4Change, from her consulting rooms in Chorleywood.

“It was really tough and I even missed a family holiday because I had exams but it changed the way the children looked at me – not just as a Mum. It also forced my husband to learn how to cook!”
Angela would definitely recommend mature study. “It’s good to challenge ourselves as we get older and it’s also great to mix with younger people.”

Along with all the other mature students I spoke to, Angela still regularly meets up with her less mature ‘classmates’. Lucy has gone one further, “I’m too old to go clubbing with them, so I regularly invite them round to my house and after I’ve gone to bed they keep going until 4am… and they did persuade me to have a tattoo!”

And that’s the true mark of a student… whatever your age.

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