5 reasons over 21s think they can’t go to university (and why they’re wrong)

Many people feel it's impossible to study for a degree later in life. Paul Devlin, Student Support Officer at the Lifelong Learning Centre, reveals why it’s never too late.

A lecturer stood in a light and airy learning space, in front of several students of a wide age range.

If you’re reading this then I guess you’re starting to ponder some big changes – reflecting on who you are, where you see your life heading, mulling over a change in career or finding work, perhaps wanting to make a brighter future for you and your family?

You may also be thinking that university might just hold some of the answers to those questions that are swirling around in your head. Your inner critic is probably also thinking: “Don’t be silly, I couldn’t go to university.”

Having spent the last nine years supporting mature students at our Lifelong Learning Centre and listening to their worries, hopes and fears, I thought it might be useful to share with you some of the concerns that they’ve all had – in the hope of making you realise that you absolutely can go to university at any stage of your life.

1. I’m too old

A lot of what we see and hear in the media about going to university amplifies this worry – that studying is only for young people.

Every August on the news we see 18-year-olds hugging (and sometimes consoling) each other as they get their A Level results, or we read about university being such an exciting opportunity for young people to live away from home for the first time. We become convinced that we’d stick out like a sore thumb – the only “old” person in a sea of young people!

The reality is very different – university is a place for people of all ages. At Leeds, our youngest student is 18 and our oldest is in their late seventies – and we have students of all ages in between. With around 2,000 mature undergraduate students currently studying with us, you certainly wouldn’t be alone!

I also frequently have people say to me: “But I’ll be 50 by the time I finish, I’ll be far too old”. I always like to remind them that they’ll be 50 regardless – so why not be 50 and have a university degree?

2. I’m not clever enough

“I left school without any qualifications. I’m not ‘academic’. I couldn’t write an essay, I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s been thirty years since I was last in a classroom.”

Where do I even start with this one? Well, firstly by telling you to be a little kinder to yourself.

But the truth is that people aren’t born “academic”. Okay, maybe Albert Einstein was. And Rachel who does the numbers on Countdown. But for us mere mortals the fact is that “being academic” is just a skill, like learning a language, learning to swim, or learning a musical instrument. We need someone who already has the skill to show us how to do it.

A mature student engaged in conversation, surrounded by other students.

Think about if you had never played piano before and started taking lessons. You’d be pretty terrible in that first lesson as you attempted very slowly to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with one finger. And that would be completely fine – it’s your first lesson, no one would be expecting any more from you. Gradually over a number of years your piano teacher would have you giving Elton John a run for his money.

University isn’t any different.

As a species, we’re prone to focusing on the things that we can’t do rather than the things that we can. Okay, so you might not have been in a classroom for many years. But look at all the rich life experience and skills that you are bringing to the table from years of working, or juggling a family, or volunteering, or just “adulting” – things that as an eighteen-year-old you maybe didn’t have up your sleeve.

You’re great, you’ll have lots to bring to this and we’ll show you how to do it every step of the way.

3. I don’t have any qualifications

Same here. I left school at 16, I don’t have Maths GCSE and I didn’t do any A Levels or anything like that. And I just assumed that I couldn’t go to university as a result.

It was only after coming to work at Leeds that I realised that this was just a story that I had told myself. In reality, many of our mature students arrive without any formal qualifications.

Depending on what you want to study, we might guide you towards getting your GCSEs at college first. For some courses, we may just ask you to sit a Maths and English test. We even offer full-time and part-time Foundation programmes – preparatory years for adults who don’t have Level 3 qualifications.

Remember my earlier point, too: that rich life experience can often count for so much more than a piece of paper.

So, don’t assume. Have a conversation with us. You might be as surprised as I was.

4. I couldn’t juggle university with my other responsibilities

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. University is amazing, incredible, transformative, enjoyable and rewarding – but it’s also a challenge at times.

Trying to finish an essay whilst navigating the school run or hitting a deadline at work is tough. University is like learning to run a marathon – the achievement when you complete it is incredible but having to get your trainers on and run in the rain every day is less enjoyable.

But I know for a fact that university is an achievable challenge for mature students. How? Because we have so many of them doing it each and every year.

A smiling mature student attending an event on campus. There are several mature students looking at displays of work and photography.

We also run part-time courses – one or two evenings a week for those who might be juggling study with full time-work. However, don’t think that as a parent or as a full-time worker or just having hectic schedule you could only study part-time. Would you believe that the vast majority of our mature students are studying full-time?

Don’t take my word for it though – watch some of our students tell their stories on our YouTube channel or head along to one of our events for prospective mature students to find out more.

5. I couldn’t afford it

Finance is a big worry – particularly for those that are in receipt of benefits, or thinking of giving up work to study, or just generally pondering whether they could afford the cost of university.

I know it’s a huge concern. I won’t talk too much about it now as my colleague John Lees wrote an excellent blog – 9 things to know about student finance as a mature student – which brilliantly shatters the myths that you can’t afford to go to university later in life.

It feels daunting – particularly for adults that have a range of other commitments to consider. Will you have to tighten your belt a little? Quite possibly. Is there money available to help you with the costs of coming to university and do our current students find it doable? Absolutely! Don’t assume that you wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Hopefully, my insights here have challenged some of the myths you were telling yourself about coming to university later in life.

Inspired? Begin finding out a little bit more and start the conversation by getting in touch with us.

Paul Devlin is Student Support Officer at the Lifelong Learning Centre, University of Leeds.

Find out more about Lifelong Learning opportunities at Leeds.



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