Returning to study in your 50s and 60s

24 May 2022

In recent years there has been an explosion of people over 50 heading to university. But why are older students looking to invest in themselves – and what is the experience like?

Difficult life events are prone to making people question their life trajectory, but usually these come at different times for different people. The pandemic, however, has forced a collective reckoning. And one area that many people questioned was their career or passion in life – and, as data show, that comes with no age limit.

In recent years, there’s been a surge in the number of older mature students. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were 87,010 over the age of 50 in 2020/21, up from about 50,000 in 2016/17. Of this total, close to 17,000 were 60 and above. While each student’s path back to university is different, what they all have in common is choosing to invest their wealth back in themselves.

Other factors are playing into this trend. One can simply be attributed to the fact that university was not always a common option – in 1980, for instance, just 8.4% of school leavers went down this path. But all that changed under Labour’s government in the late 1990s, with Tony Blair’s stated aim of reaching 50% of school leavers going on to university reached in 2017. Greater funding – as well as more working-class students opting in – has cleared the way for those who thought it wasn’t an option for them before.

Unretirement

‘Unretirement’ is another aspect. Life expectancy has increased, and people are therefore either having longer careers or choosing to come out of retirement. Research from The University of Manchester and King’s College London published in 2017 found that 25% of Britons returned to work within five years of retiring. Whether the aim is out of economic necessity or personal development, it does show that this cohort represents an important segment of the workforce.

But what is the experience like for those who do return to university? You might think that it could be intimidating for older students to be around much younger generations, but it seems quite the opposite. Philip Rouse, who decided to read Italian studies at UCL in his 60s, describes how, after some initial hesitation, “they just accepted me as one of the group and treated me quite normally”. He added that it was interesting to find out how the younger people, and those from different countries, think. This sentiment was echoed by Cathy Dean, who is studying psychology at the University of Gloucestershire and is president of its mature students’ society. She added that, while her friend group is mostly older students, there “isn’t any sense of them and us”.

There also could be some anxiety about studying again. Raewyn Jones, who is also at UCL and studying a master’s in political science, says it’s like her “brain has been to the gym”. While she found some statistics modules challenging, overcoming these obstacles has left her feeling immensely proud. Cathy and Philip both found that their previous careers, in the civil service and as a lawyer respectively, had somewhat helped with their return to university, including adapting to academic writing. This latter aspect has left others at her university struggling, Cathy said.
 

Facing the challenges

 

There were some downsides, though. As we age, our brains also change, which can make it harder to retain information. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, being able to rewatch lectures has been a huge benefit, Raewyn noted. She also found the transition from the corporate world back to academia slightly frustrating at times. And while the overall sentiment on mixing with younger students was positive, Philip spent a year studying in Milan, which he found “a little bit of a lonely experience”, as the larger lecture groups made it more difficult to get to know other students.


There are other challenges mature students should keep in mind. As reported by the Office for Students, mature students are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have additional responsibilities, say caring for parents or work. With this in mind, picking a university that has a strong support system for older students is vital, as Cathy explains about her university. This is critical, as the Office for Students also reports that mature students are more likely to drop out.

As much as new career opportunities are opened up by education, the benefits go far beyond this. As Cathy exclaimed, “the doors of my mind have been opened… I know how to think critically now. It’s made me question so much more. It's just utterly life enhancing all the way around. And it’s done my confidence no end of good as well.” For Philip, being able to explore niche historical interests and focus on his lifelong love of languages came to the fore. Meanwhile, Raewyn said it’s not just an investment in your future career, but “one that will pay dividends just in your wellbeing. The world changes [and] it’s great to expand your horizons at all ages.”

As with any venture, you get what you put into it – but university for older students has the potential to realise profound changes. As Cathy and Raewyn both summarise, “just do it”.

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