'Tis the season to be jolly, and a little perplexed

December 3, 2004

Living in halls is absolute bliss but what does a more mature man do when the time comes to uproot?

Christmas decorations have gone up in our shared kitchen. It is a reminder that my room in halls is home. I like being institutionalised and sometimes I hurry back after venturing beyond the walls of the campus. Living in halls suits my needs, but it is temporary. In June next year I will have to find somewhere else to live. Our new building, wonderful and with clear views over the city, is designed to take advantage of the summer conference market. Moving about every few months is part of the student experience, an adventure I enjoyed when I was studying dance in my late teens. Now it will just be a pain to uproot and start again. Again. Maybe by the summer I might be ready to leave the halls' safety and convenience. For the moment I revel in them and love the fact that I won't have to think about planning again until the spring.

Even then, though, who I might want to share a house with could prove tricky. While I have been made welcome by the young undergraduates without any judgement - they think it's really cool that I'm here - the need to find sympathetic adult company is getting more serious. I'm starting to notice a growing divide between me and people out there in the hectic, mortgaged world of work. We have less and less in common, and because campus-world conversation can sometimes be limited simply because of the age difference, at times it can feel alienating being an older mature student.

Ironically, I'm not entirely alone. The university statistics office suggests that almost half the students here are mature - by definition those over 21 years old and yet social activity seems devised mainly for school-leavers. Of the older matures (late twenties and above), the number is in the high hundreds. The other group of people I talk to are tutors and staff. I enjoy candid discussions with all of them, but there remains a professional distance and I would feel uncomfortable trying to break that.

Something stops me asking them out for a drink.

Fortunately, some sort of a solution for meeting potentially like-minded people has come up via the student union - I've been voted in as the mature students' representative. Because I know that my experience isn't necessarily the same as anyone else's and that as a group we are infinitely varied and notoriously difficult people to pin down, I'm trying to find out what sort of representation would make a difference. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education researches many aspects of being an adult learner, although there is not much information about mature students'

needs and expectations of university life either there or elsewhere. To start to find these things out I've been given enthusiastic support from all corners of the university: my college principal is terrific and directs me to all sorts of ideas and people; the social science department is keen to do a proper research survey about mature students, and staff in the learning centre tell me that half of the people who come to them for help are mature students.

In time, I think we can gather some really useful information that helps everyone. If you happen to find a research paper in your Christmas stocking about older people's expectations and experience of higher education, please let me know. I can pay you with oranges, nuts and a paper hat.

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