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Education an Ageless Pursuit

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adult learningIn the last two years, in Ireland, there has been a 19% increase in the number of applicants applying as mature students. Returning to education is no longer that luxury which became possible with life-long learning thinking and initiatives; a hallmark of a developed and rich economy. Life-long learning has now become a survival mechanism to negate against the number of people on the live register and to make unemployable people employable again. A record numbers of adults will continue to return to education for two distinct reasons according to the Higher Education Authority Chief Executive, Tom Boland. He said: ‘the latest figures reflect two trends: firstly there are those already in the workplace who need to raise skills to new levels and secondly there are those who have become unemployed and recognise the value of retraining to secure employment. In 2003, 5,934 mature students applied to go into higher level compared to over 12,000 in 2011.

If you are contemplating returning as a mature student, there are a number of issues and requirements you need to consider:

· You need to be over 23 year of age to be seen as a mature student (access/foundation courses can be exceptions to this)

· You will have to look at funding – will you be eligible for the free fees initiative and a maintenance grant?

· If you have already attained an undergraduate degree, you cannot receive further funding to complete another undergraduate course of study. This is not seen a progression

· If you do have to pay fees you may be able to get tax relief

· If you are getting an unemployment, one parent or disability payment, the BTEA (back to education allowance) allows you to study without losing your benefits

The good news is that higher education has become increasingly accessible to mature learners. ITs and Universities have demonstrated best practice in terms of the application process, the induction process and also in terms of support services for the mature learner.

· A certain quota of places (at least 10%) are reserved for mature students (non-standard applicants)

· You compete with your peers for a place, not with standard applicants

· Colleges take into account your educational background, work history, community involvement and interests known as APEL (accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning)

· Most colleges have a designated mature student officer, mature student resource centres and a very open Access Office (to support you on a number of different levels)

· Colleges like GMIT have PAL in place – peer assisted learning

· There are foundation/access programmes in place in most HEIs, that prepare you for a full-time degree course and in some cases they gain you direct entry into certain degree programmes.

· NUIG, Saint Angelas and IT Sligo are starting a new initiative in September where mature students can avail of a foundation course in Science, Technology and Engineering. This course is designed as a part-time intensive introductory course running between September and April. Classes run on two evenings a weeks and the course will run for 13 weeks. This course is a recognised entry requirement for a number of full-time undergraduate degree courses in Science, Technology and Engineering in NUI Galway and IT Sligo. The subjects studied include: Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics.

Yes, there are any number of supports from peer assisted learning to counselling services but as a mature student, you have to support yourself in what can often be initially a difficult transition to make. How can you help yourself?

· Attend a mature information day in any of the HEI’S

· Read the prospectus thoroughly

· Establish a circle of support (friends, family, other students)

· Join the mature student society

· Develop time-management skills

· Work on self-esteem issues that might block learning, think ‘I can’ rather than ‘I can’t’

· Ask for help if you need it. Asking for help is a sign of emotional intelligence

· Avail of the services in place to support you

Remember, colleges are continually working hard to improve access, inclusiveness and diversity. They recognise that mature students have much to contribute to the college and to fellow students. In fact, access to higher education has grown steadily in the past 40 years, reaching a point of almost universal access and placing Ireland ahead of many other countries in the EU and OECD in terms of overall numbers entering higher education.

Do mature students do well at college? According to the Access Office in DCU: highly motivated and dedicated students do well and come out with first class honours in some cases. Mature students are examples of this type of student.

Higher Education is especially important in the context of Ireland remaining to the fore in a knowledge based society, regaining a stable economic position in a global economy, ensuring greater social cohesion and continuing to move towards a more equitable society.  Higher education on an individual level might be the only way out of spiralling personal debt and unemployability. A study by the Combat Poverty agency recently showed that the rationale given by the state for supporting mature students in Higher Education (HE) is that it will yield economic and social benefits for both the students and society.

In the most recent HEA report on Equity and Access in Higher Education (2008) it was noted:

the fact that graduates used their degree in order to access careers that they perceive to be more meaningful and with greater security offers us an invaluable insight from the grassroots perspective of mature graduates and how they navigate a personal and career path through the knowledge economy. The graduates repositioned themselves in jobs in which they could envisage a future and that entailed greater levels of commitment and autonomy. Also noticed in the report was, in the case of mature students: with those who are successful in Higher Education, the family is the key to their success as the family unit supports the student in college.

Whatever your reasons for returning to education; preparation is essential. Reflect on the effect it will have on you, your family, your time and finances. Ensure you are picking the subjects for you and the department that will support you in getting through a degree programme. We were often told as teenagers that education and knowledge is self-empowering. Today, returning to education as a mature student, might give you that much needed power and intervention to navigate your way back into the working-world again.