'Daft ducks' and 'smelly old cows' probably not welcome

November 22, 2002

Ageism in universities is not limited to academic staff, writes Chris Bunting. Many mature students find that they are isolated and suffer abuse in a system that favours the young.

Julie" doesn't look like a victim of ageism. She arrived at one of the Britain's elite universities last year aged only 22, with a clutch of three A-level grade As. "I thought age wouldn't be an issue. I thought nobody would think about that. But it was an issue," says the law student, who does not wish to be named. "They were all 18 or 19. Most hadn't even been on a gap year and the discussion was dominated by the outcome of A levels, getting drunk and getting laid. I felt the fact that I had had a gap at all marked me out from them."

Julie, who had arrived late at university because of a medical problem, found herself lying about her age. She started telling people she was 20 "just to narrow the divide". The relentless partying of her fellow first-years further alienated her from the group and, as the year wore on, endless talk about her coming "21st birthday" celebrations started to build up mental pressure that culminated in a nervous breakdown. Without any effective pastoral support from her university, she finished the year and started the new term this October unable to attend lectures. Her degree has become a correspondence course.

Irene Ison is 72. It was when her fellow students started calling her a "smelly old cow" and "the old bitch" that she realised she was in for a rough ride. That was when she was taking a City and Guilds course with a group of 16-year-olds at Tile Hill College in Coventry. Ison, who won the national adult learner's award in 1992, subsequently graduated to an MA course in photography at De Montfort University, where the discrimination was "more mature". For her entire second year, her fellow students refused to tell her where they held the fortnightly cooperative study groups that were integral to the course. She turned up to a Christmas party to find nobody there and a message to the venue saying the rest of the year group would arrive when she had gone.

Ison, who has now finished the MA, is looking for a PhD place to research creativity and eccentricity in old age.She turned up to one interview to be told that applicants for the cleaner's job should go down the corridor. "One academic asked me why he should give me a place if I was likely to die during the course," Ison says. "They don't want a daft old duck in their class. You are intruding on a kind of cult of youth."

Such tales of a youth-oriented monoculture in some British universities are common among mature students. They would be a sad but perhaps peripheral issue if there was not evidence that age discrimination in higher education extended far beyond the attitudes of a few ignorant teenagers.

Tom Schuller, professor of continuing education at Birkbeck College, London, believes that assumptions about the age of students are endemic among academics. "You will find many academics organising their seminars with no thought as to whether they can fit into mature students' lives. There is a focus on full-time not part-time students, which again has an age aspect."

A mature student attempting to continue his or her education beyond undergraduate level will quickly discover that it is common among academics to discriminate on age in a way that would be unacceptable in other walks of life. High-profile postgraduate grant schemes such as the Gates Cambridge scholarships and the Royal Society's Dorothy Hodgkin grants have removed age limitations in the past two years because of concerns about discrimination, but it is still common for postgraduate funding to be limited explicitly to students in their 20s or 30s.

Carolyn Carr, a chemist working in industry and a former Daphne Jackson fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, says: "The model is you come out of your degree straight to postgraduate work and on to your PhD. Any delay and you are going to find it very difficult to build an academic career.

"The logic for these age restrictions is they are getting new blood into their fields, but you might ask whether they are just perpetuating the old blood," she says. "What kind of people are you going to get? Not women who have been delayed because of having families, not people who have started late into the system because of their backgrounds. You are more likely to get middle-class men."

Joe Baden, manager of a project at Goldsmiths College, London, to recruit and retain non-traditional students in education, says that age discrimination can be a very good proxy for other less acceptable forms of discrimination such as class, race and gender discrimination. "I don't think that is the intention in most cases, but that is the effect that people have got to understand," he says.

Julie already has limited prospects. If she chooses postgraduate study after she graduates, the Evan Lewis-Thomas Law Studentships at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, for instance, state that "preference will be given to candidates who will be under 26I though special circumstances (for instance military service) will be taken into account". Julie, who has not done military service, would be unlikely to be able to use a studentship to fund a PhD, although a shorter masters course taken immediately after her degree might be possible. Challenged about Julie's case, Mark Hemmings, senior tutor at Sidney Sussex, said: "The main thing is that we are looking for someone at the beginning of their career rather than any particular age."

Barry Farleigh, who handles mature-student issues for the National Union of Students, believes part of the reason for what he calls "the massive ignorance" about age issues in higher education is a lack of effective representation.

"Mature students see themselves as the forgotten students. Even in the NUS, there is very little focus on these kind of issues. Not so long ago, for instance, we negotiated a 30 per cent discount on London Transport for 18 to 24-year-olds. We just completely ignored the over-30s," Farleigh says.

A conference of mature student NUS members last year discussed a motion to make ageism a "liberation campaign", NUS-speak for a top-priority campaign aimed at combating discrimination. "I had to advise them that there would be too much opposition from within the leadership of the NUS. There are people in the other campaigns, such as the gay and lesbian campaign, the women and the black students, who would feel the inclusion of age would trivialise theirs. It is not seen as a serious issue," Farleigh says.

Because large parts of the student and academic population are apparently ignorant of ageism, many hope that a government loudly committed to "lifelong learning" will address what Schuller describes as education's "massive systemic bias in favour of youth". Schuller believes that the government has already done some practical work. Significantly increased funding for community and work-based learning has helped sustain vital re-entry points into education for adults, he says. Money has also been pumped into researching age-related issues in education.

Nevertheless, "the focus of policy in relation to post-compulsory education has undoubtedly narrowed" since Labour came to power, Schuller says. The government plans to introduce legislation on age discrimination in the workplace by 2006, but it has produced no similar plans for education. More immediately damaging has been a "crippling" preoccupation with a target of increasing the proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds to 50 per cent. This, Schuller believes, has led to a "front-loading" of universities with millions of "middle-class underachievers at the expense of other groups who may not be able to take up the opportunity straight after school".

The move towards funding higher education through loans, which are not available to over-55s and are often highly unattractive to adults who already have debts and extensive commitments, combined with the large expansion in the availability of education for school-leavers has meant that the sector has got younger, not older, in recent years. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of under 25-year-olds accepted by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service rose by 24 per cent, from 258,913 to 321,093. The number of students aged over 25 went up by 0.14 per cent.

Ison, who missed three years of her schooling in the war, left school aged 14 unable to read. She then raised three highly successful children as a single mother. "I did my O levels in my 40s, my A levels in my 50s, my BA in my 60s and my MA in my 70s. I'll keep knocking on the door for them to let me in," she says.

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