‘Lockdown has a lot to answer for’: the mature students going back to university

Becky Slack, 41, went into lockdown at her home in rural France alone – she’d split up with her husband not long before. “I’ve been very isolated for a long time and that’s given me lots of time for reflection about who I am, what I’m doing, and what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she says. After many long days alone with her thoughts, Slack, who has her own communications business, has decided to make a big change: she is moving to Brussels in September to study a master’s in political strategy and communication. “I decided to take the plunge and apply – lockdown has a lot to answer for,” she says. 

The number of mature students at universities in the UK has been rising, according to Ucas, and the biggest increase seen this year, as of the January deadline, was with those aged 35 and over. It’s too early to assess the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on Ucas applications, but many would-be mature students say the pandemic has only increased their desire to study.

Camilla Priede, from the University of Sheffield’s department of lifelong learning, which deals with mature students, says she’s seen “a real upsurge in applications” over the past few months. “It’s a promising sign that people are thinking more about lifelong learning, retraining and doing that thing they’ve always cared about,” she says. 

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A number of things could draw adults to university at the moment. For Slack, the pandemic has made her reassess her sense of purpose. “I was thinking, if I get ill, what have I done with my life?” she says. “I’m now the most free I’ve ever been as an adult [and have a] general sense of frustration at what’s going on in the world.” Rather than venting her anger on social media, Slack wanted to do something practical.

The pandemic has also made Nikky Cato, 41, consider going back to university. Cato has chronic fatigue syndrome and left university without a degree years ago, when she was denied reasonable adjustments. But as classes shift online, Cato feels universities have become more accessible and more willing to be flexible. 

“Suddenly the pandemic hit and everyone’s like, look at us, we can do everything by Zoom,” she says. “I was half eye-rolling and half thinking there’s no point in being bitter when I can use the opportunity.” She’s now looking into part-time psychology degrees.

The shift to online learning also suits Deborah Talbot, 53, who will begin a master’s in existential coaching at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling this year. “I was always a bit trapped indoors because I have lupus,” she says. “So it’s almost as if the world is catching up to me.”

Financial concerns and loss of work could also persusde people to return to education in order to upskill or retrain. Talbot predicts her freelance work as a writer will be harder to obtain as we enter a recession. “It’s about a retirement plan and sustainability,” she says.

Embarking on a university degree is also a big financial commitment, though. “At the moment I’m having to work and save really hard,” says Slack. “I’m definitely going in with a different mindset than when I did my first degree.”

Psychologists say it’s not surprising some adult learners may decide to take the leap now. “The lockdown and coronavirus crisis has made [many of] us reflect on our lives, leading us to redefine our concept of success,” says Dr Rachel Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist based in Glasgow. 

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Claire Goodwin-Fee, a counsellor and psychotherapist, suggests lockdown has given us space to consider something different. “It has stripped away a lot of the excess things in our lives,” she says. Taking proactive steps, such as embarking on a degree, can also give us a sense of control, which is comforting amid so much uncertainty.

Still, returning to university, or going for the first time, albeit online, can be nerve-racking. “I’m surprised by how anxious I am about going back to uni and being a beginner again,” Cato says. Slack, who previously did an undergraduate degree at the University of Salford, says she’s nervous too. “I’ve got a bit of impostor syndrome and worry I’m not as good as everyone else, or that I’ll just be the weird old person at the back of the classroom,” she says. 

Many mature students opt to study part-time alongside work and other commitments. Nicki Wedgwood, 25, plans to do a part-time undergraduate degree in community development and public policy at Birkbeck, University of London on top of a full-time job at a debt advice charity. ‘I feel like we’re on the cusp of something and thought I want to use this time to study,” she says. “Online [learning] is more accessible and easier to fit around my full-time job.”

Annette Baxter, a senior careers consultant at the University of Sheffield, says mature students have many strengths. “Often they come with far more focus,” she says. “They bring their life experience with them.”

For Slack, the move to Brussels is both scary and exciting. “I’ll be 42 and going back into education so that’s kind of terrifying,” she says. But after so much reflection on who she is and what she wants, she’s looking forward to it. “I feel like it’s now or never.”

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