Age is Just a Number: Mature Student Life in Portsmouth

Between 2009 and 2014, the number of students aged 21-24 at the University of Portsmouth rose by 11 per cent. Sian White thinks it’s time we talked more about what being a mature student is really like.

To be labelled a mature student you must be aged 21 or over. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, mature means ‘having attained maturity or full development’. Yet 35-year-old Brett Harley, an English Literature student at UoP, told me that ‘maturity is not my key strength’ and that society should ‘abolish the myth’ that there is any real difference between students who are older or younger than 21. As Julie Cowley wrote in the Telegraph in 2013, ‘age really is just a number’.

At 22, Jade Everest, an English Language and Literature student at UoP, is just over the ‘threshold’ for being labelled a mature student. She told me that before she began her studies she was nervous about feeling ‘too old’ compared to fellow students aged 18 and 19. But once she had met other mature students, she stopped thinking about it at all.

There are virtues in waiting until you are a bit older before going to university. The Huffington Post has concluded that young people feel rushed and pressured into higher education and that ‘nearly 30% said they did not have enough information on alternatives to university.’ According to Marianne Talbot of The Telegraph, ‘so many young people go to university even though they’ve no real idea of what they want to study’.

The last year of your A-Levels may not be enough time to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. Other youngsters, like Jade, get put off by further education entirely: ‘I hated college and couldn’t wait to get out of the mundane repetition of education.’

She got a full time job at a pub and ‘loved it’. After this experience of the world of work she was ready to embrace education again in the hope of becoming a teacher. This break turned out to be the wisest move of Jade’s life, given that The Independent’s Helena Pozniak has uncovered evidence that ‘older postgraduates often succeed because they’ve made a definite choice, rather than just drifting into one by default, and turn out to be “better” students’. Moreover, NUS statistics show that mature students are more likely to earn first-class degrees than their younger counterparts. Wendy Meehan, who studied nursing at Glyndwr University in her late thirties, told The Telegraph, ‘I felt that being a mature student somehow made me feel that I needed to work harder’.

By contrast, Brett Harley was adamant that he didn’t feel in any way intellectually superior to younger students on his course. ‘No way!’ he exclaimed. ‘I have been away from education for 16 years whereas the younger people around me have been in continuous education since they were five’. But he admits that working part-time and looking after a family aside from his studies makes him better organised than the average 18-year-old.

I asked Dr Alison Habens, Head of Creative Writing at UoP, about whether mature students fare better academically in her department. ‘They do not necessarily find the work easier,’ she said, ‘but they may be at a different life stage’ which gives them certain advantages over their peers. Brett would concur: ‘I think I add something to class discussions by reading things in literature in a different way due to my life experience.’

Furthermore, Alison asserts that mature students can fulfil a ‘parent or mentor role’ for the younger learners, which brings benefits to all. ‘It is nice to be around students of a similar age to me,’ she continued. ‘But I don’t teach or act any differently [towards them] nor do I have different relationships [with them].’

My own encounters with mature students have been positive. In classroom situations I have not found them to act any differently to any other age group. As Brett said to me, ‘I often forget that I’m 35 when I’m sitting talking away with 18 or 19-year-olds.’

So why don’t all of us students – and lecturers – forget about superficial issues like age and treat each other as equals?

Image by Tom Sykes.