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What does a university student look like? Young, fashionable and starry-eyed — or mature, grey-haired and sensible?

The answer, you may be surprised to learn, is both. About 50,000 students across UK campuses are aged 50 or over, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) student record numbers for 2016-17.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a university education was rare. Only 3.4 per cent of British school leavers went to university in 1950. By 1970, the figure had risen to a paltry 8.4 per cent — a total of 35,000 men and 15,000 women, according to government statistics.

Times have changed. Back in the 1990s, Tony Blair, the then prime minister, set a target that 50 per cent of young Britons should enter higher education. Now, one in three English 18-year-olds goes straight to university from school, despite the introduction of tuition fees.

Older non-graduate entrants to the job market, such as the thousands of over-50s looking for work after redundancy, have a problem. They are very likely to be out-qualified by younger candidates with degrees.

The answer, for many, is to make up for lost time. The HESA reports that there were 48,010 undergraduates over 50 at conventional campus-style universities in the past academic year, and just over 27 per cent of these or 13,120 were aged over 60.

There is no upper age limit for student loans. Graduates only start to pay back the loans if they have earnings of more more than £25,000 a year from the April after graduating, and will then repay 9 per cent of their earnings above this level. Debts are written off after 30 years. Unless mature students are very highly paid, they are likely to have most of the loans written off.

At Birkbeck University of London, 1,455 of its 12,907 full-time students were aged over 50 last year — more than 11 per cent. Of these, 450 were aged over 60.

Birkbeck offers monthly Get Started and Future Focus workshops for anyone who wants to go to university later in life. Remarkably, representatives from these teams also attend prospective parents’ evenings at University College London, Kings University and City University to ask if they have considered going to university themselves now that their children are leaving home.

Sahar Erfani, widening access manager at Birkbeck says it often takes three years from first talking to a decision by a “mature learner” to apply officially for a degree course.

“They have a myriad of barriers,” she says. “They often have to consider money, time, their job and juggling anything and everything in between.”

While school leavers are guided by their careers officers and teachers into making their university applications by the UCAS deadline in January, mature learners often apply right up to the start of term.

Options for mature students

Birkbeck University of London

At the Birkbeck workshops, many potential undergraduates are worried that they have no A-levels, that they have forgotten how to make effective notes or that when they were at school they used blackboards instead of interactive white boards says Sahar Erfani, widening access manager at Birkbeck. These are not barriers to entry; only a third of those accepted have A-levels and help is at hand to cope with new technology.

Birkbeck’s mature learners attend the university campuses at Bloomsbury and Stratford. Most live in London. They take full-time, part-time, post graduate courses plus standalone higher education modules.

This summer, Birkbeck will launch its “Plan B” pilot, when it will take academics into community centres in Camden, Newham and Haringey to tell potential mature learners about the courses available.

Open University

© Charlie Bibby/FT

The Open University — set up in 1969 to provide remote university courses — has undergraduates of all ages. They usually study for a degree over six years alongside work or caring responsibilities. It currently has almost 19,500 students age 50 and over. The most popular course for the over 50s is “The Arts past and present”. For the under-50s, the most popular course is “Investigating psychology”.

Some 60 per cent of its students are funded with a tuition fee loan from Student Finance England to cover their £2,786 a year fees over six years. A typical Open University degree costs £16,716 in England and a maximum of £5,594 in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales — substantially less than a campus-based course.

OU students who earn less than £25,000 may be eligible for a free introductory access module.

One recent Open University graduate is Anne Sadler, 69, who took a BSc in Social Sciences after having to give up a degree started a decade previously at Northumbria University because of ill-health.

“Ensure you are interested in the subject and be prepared to read lots,” is her advice. “I would say, if you feel you can, and inside you know you can — just go for it.”

Professor Andrew Scott of London Business School, co-author of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, says people in later life should study and consider starting new careers or businesses.

“We are marrying and having children later and the next step is to create mid-career breaks, taking time out to explore, building our own businesses, going back to education,” he says.

“We need to ask ourselves whether we want to push on doing the same thing or whether we reinvent ourselves, retrain or take on a different role.”

Funding your degree as a mature student

Undergraduates of any age can apply for Student Finance to cover the cost of tuition fees. Interest of the retail price index plus 3 per cent applies to student loans — currently 6.1 per cent — although this varies depending on how much students earn after graduation. Loans only start to be repaid when annual earnings, including pensions, exceed £25,000

Generally, those people who already have a degree level qualification cannot get funding for tuition fees even if they self-funded their first degree, but there are some exceptions — including many healthcare degrees.

Maintenance loans are currently only available for full-time students, but part-time students may be added later this year. Maintenance loans for those aged 60 or over are lower than younger students can receive, but those with a household income below £25,000 can borrow up to £3,566 per year.

Another financial bonus for mature students is that they can get access to a whole range of student discounts including laptops, clothing, restaurants and cinemas.

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