Single mums and TV stars are going back to college, reports Julie McCord.
When television presenter Matthew Kelly decided to combine his successful showbusiness career with the commitments of a part-time mature student, there were no stars in his eyes. The host of the popular television song show studied for a psychology degree at the Open University.
He looks back on his student experience as one of the most difficult yet rewarding times of his life when he was combining rigorous media schedules with the relentless deadlines set by his professors. "I came from a family of learners and believe in learning throughout life," he says. "And I may return to my books at a later stage in my career."
The popularity of distance-style learning at the OU, which awards first degrees to about 40,000 mature students a year, is attracting ever increasing numbers. This compares with a 7 per cent drop in the number of mature first-year students who enrolled on courses at traditional British institutions last September, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
The University of London's Birkbeck College, which takes only students aged 21 and above, is also bucking the downward trend. It has seen a 2 per cent rise in undergraduates this year, 6,000 of whom signed up for its evening-course programme. Spokeswoman Shauna Wilkie says mature students like the evening programme because it allows them to stay in their day jobs, although it also means they study a year longer than average. "I think the fact that our students are mature also helps provide a good network of support - they are not the only mature student in a class."
The National Union of Students believes the withdrawal of maintenance grants and the imposition of tuition fees is responsible for the overall fall in mature student numbers. "We fear it could also cause mature students to drop out in higher numbers," spokeswoman Karen Dunphie says.
This year, 281,075 mature students began undergraduate studies in the UK and their dedication is welcomed by tutors. But sometimes professors find that older students try too hard.
David Berger, senior counsellor at Hull University, says: "They are often too serious and conscientious and will prepare for tutorials in far greater depth than their younger counterparts." He adds that some can find it hard coming up against younger people who are brighter than them. "It hurts to discover someone younger can polish off an essay in an hour and a half and get good marks when it took you days."
Other problems include family responsibilities. Anita Doxey, a 46-year-old single mother of two, says: "It's a juggling act. When I was at work I used to finish at 5.30, but this is constant pressure. Even when you are not doing it, you are thinking about it."