Learning / Adult education

How to get back into education as an adult

By jess connett, Tuesday May 7, 2019

Returning to education after a break can be challenging in many ways. But the life experience gained during that time can be invaluable, and it’s never too late to start studying your dream course.

To gather some tips about going back to education as an adult, we spoke to two people with inside knowledge.

Anna Burchfiel works as the mature student undergraduate recruitment officer at the University of Bristol. She helps prospective students through UCAS applications and works to make the university as open as possible to learners from all walks of life.

Paul Allen left school at the age of 15 to be a bricklayer with his dad. Three years ago he began UWE Bristol‘s Creative and Professional Writing BA(Hons). This year he will turn 60, see his work published in poetry anthology Common People, graduate, and start what he calls his “second life”.

Mature student Paul spent decades working on building sites, before returning to education in his late 50s

It’s a myth that universities don’t accept mature students

“Having a diverse student body makes for a better learning experience for everyone,” says Anna. “Diversity of age is important, and we really value the different perspectives mature students bring.”

Pick your university carefully

Paul initially started a different degree, before moving to UWE. Just being accepted onto a course doesn’t mean you should take the place, he says: “At my age it’s a one-shot deal and I wanted to get it right. Shop around and make sure the people and the course are right.”

Consider a top-up course

One-year foundation courses, degrees with a preliminary year of study, and the Access to Higher Education Diploma are pathways into study set up for mature students. “It’s not just academic content but skills like how to write an essay and how to reference,” Anna says of the University of Bristol’s foundation courses. “There’s a lot of assumed knowledge in undergraduate degrees, so these give people the skills in order to succeed.”

Tap into the support that is on offer

Ask about everything: from whether it will be possible to work part-time during the course, to the options for childcare on campus. On the social side, there will likely be a dedicated mature student network for you to meet others on different courses.

Anna Burchfiel is the mature student undergraduate recruitment officer at the University of Bristol

Check the deadlines

Some courses require students to apply almost a full year before the course starts. You may even have to undertake work experience and complete tests. Don’t be disheartened if you miss a deadline, says Anna: it’s not unusual for it to take years to get everything in place.

Be prepared for the culture clash

“I was nervous as hell,” Paul says of his first lecture at UWE, when he was suddenly surrounded by people in their 20s. Major lifestyle differences became clear after a lecture, when Paul was going back home to the Forest of Dean for an evening in with his partner, while his coursemates were heading out on the town.

Have a financial plan

Know how you will cover day-to-day living along with the cost of study. Paul continued to work part-time, which gave him some flexibility when he was faced with a big bill for his van. Bursaries and funding, including the Advanced Learner Loan, are often available.

Embrace your life experience

“The only hurdles have been within myself,” Paul says. “You get a lot of self-doubt when you’re older, after you’ve been doing something for so many years and then go and do something completely different. But everyone has done everything they can to help me – I’ll never be able to thank UWE enough. Three years have turned me into someone completely different and I’d encourage as many people as possible to do this.”


Read more: ‘The more diverse nursing is, the stronger it gets’

Related articles