Jane* is in her first year of her Ancient Classics degree at Maynooth University. Her desk looks chaotic, but she has a working system and favourite lecturers and those that she will rant about for 20 minutes straight.
All this sounds like Jane is a pretty average student. But next to her snappy sense of humour, there is something else that sets her apart from the rest of her class: Jane has not just finished her Leaving Certificate. She is “61 years young” as she would describe it herself and so she is considered a ‘mature student’.
Although this broad term encompasses a big and diverse group of people – all students aged 23 and older – it labels a minority. And as most minorities, mature students do feel left behind in the system.
The beginning of 2020 has marked a “decade of decline” when it comes to adult participation in education, according to a survey of the UK’s Learning and Work Institute (L&W), and the situation in Ireland does not seem to be any different.
By now, Jane is not bothered by that anymore, but she felt “so out of place” for a long time.
Jane tells me that the average mature student at her university is probably between 23 and 30 years old with only a few are around 45. Students of her age are rare and that is also how they feel, she says. “You can spot the over 60s from a mile off. I see them wandering around like lost souls.”
It can indeed be difficult to start university at a mature age, among other reasons because there is not much mingling going on between different age groups. By now, Jane is not bothered by that anymore, but she felt “so out of place” for a long time.
While in 2014/15, 10.8 per cent of students entering Maynooth University (MU) for an undergraduate degree were 23 and older, the number decreased by almost half until 2018/19, where it only amounted to 5.6 per cent after those four years.
MU’s Director of Access, Dr Rose Ryan confirms that those trends are “mirrored nationally where applications by mature students to the Central Applications Office have fallen.” She names reductions in financial incentives and discrepancies of full-time studies and employment as issues that possibly explain the downward trend.
Jane’s main complaint is that in order to have exam papers printed a little bit larger, she needed to have a disability. But her visual impairment is not a disability, simply a matter of age.
But it isn’t only social and financial aspects that discourage adults to enter third level-education. Jane would like universities to have a section called ‘senior students’ with special allowances that take into account that, “our brains are not the same, our values in life are not the same and most of us have deteriorating vision.”
Jane’s main complaint is that in order to have exam papers printed a little bit larger, she needed to have a disability. But her visual impairment is not a disability, simply a matter of age. Most of the disadvantages that Jane encounters result from her being put in a category with everybody over the age of 23 by the educational system, she says.
The same problem applies to her hearing. “I am not deaf but teenagers tend to mumble so I never know if I got it right or wrong. This is so annoying,” Jane complains, talking in particular about her Spanish classes. Learning a new language is even more difficult to her than to her classmates as she struggles with understanding words acoustically.
It is different talking to Jane about her studies than talking to teenagers who go to university. If you decide to study again more than 40 years after you went to school for the last time, you have put a lot of thought into it. Although Jane regrets that she decided to change her minor from Philosophy to Spanish, she has not given up yet.
Her books and pads are full of sticky notes in bright colours. Laminated tables from her Spanish classes are pinned to her living room walls, constantly reminding her how to conjugate irregular verbs.
Jane loves Spanish, but for her the pace is too fast. Nevertheless, she wants to pass the upcoming exam at least.
She is from another generation than the majority of her fellow students, hence her strong determination and enthusiasm. When she was young – or younger – it was uncommon to receive the kind of education she is enjoying now.
Jane did her Leaving Certificate and later acquired secretarial skills. She also took many computer courses over the years. But going to university wasn’t an option for her at that time.
“The school I went to trained us to be cogs for local industry. We were taught to obey rules, to be punctual and uniform. And if you were a female, you were also taught to be subordinate, to keep your opinions to yourself and not to question anything ever.”
The number of students who are – like Jane – 50 years and older is increasingly small and not even visible in the Higher Education Authority’s demographics bar chart. But they are there, as well as their younger peers. And why shouldn’t they all deserve to learn and to be treated fairly, no matter at what point of their life they get access to higher education?