Getting my degree and my masters was one of the hardest, most rewarding things I've ever done. There are a few things I learned along the way which made my life easier.
- To begin with, visit the university nearest to you. Is it close to support systems and existing flexible work? Can you get around without a car? Go to an open day, mooch around, talk to people. If it seems like a good option for the course you want, and you won't have to relocate, apply there. Particularly if you have children! I am lucky to live in Bournemouth, where the uni is amazing.
- Your best bet for application is through Clearing. Many mature students don't meet the conditions required to apply in the regular way, but many universities are willing to take a risk on a student who has older qualifications, life experience and writing skills.
- Finance matters: The most common statement I have heard is, "I'd love to get a degree, but I can't afford it." Yes, you can. Student Finance is amazing. Yes it's a loan, and you will have to pay it back, but Student Finance will lend you not only your uni fees but maintenance money as well if you have young children. This will need to be paid back out of your salary, like a tax. There are also maintenance grants via Student Finance which will not have to be repaid. Be aware that these and your student loan can count as 'income'. Any benefits you receive will be calculated based on 'income' some of which you will be expected to repay once you are working and earning over the threshold.
- Housing Benefit and Council Tax Exemption. If everyone in your home is a student (you and your children), you are exempt from paying council tax. Go to your Town Hall and ask about housing benefit (now universal credit). They will ask you lots of personal questions and inspect your bank statements. It's pretty intrusive but it works. You can also check Turn2Us for more tips on what to expect and make applications for grants.
- Emergency money and loans are a thing. When my ex stopped sending child maintenance and went to live in Thailand (apparently this is a thing?) I found myself in sudden panic mode and unable to pay bills. I thought I'd have to drop out of uni. The first thing I did was go back to work, not realising that my housing benefits would fall as soon as I started earning money again... Eventually I turned to Student Advice, my academic advisor and everyone else I could think of at the university and got some extra funding. There is always a solution, even when the problem seems *that* disastrous. The kids and I are still dealing with the debt repayments and stress from that year, but the money I can earn with a Masters Degree is going to catch us back up - in time!
- I spoke to a friend who works at at the Job Centre about this recently, and she pointed out that the new Universal Credit system should work better for those who are working part time while studying. There is a cap on how much you can earn and not have benefits reduced - so working part time could 'top up' your income. Again, talk to an up-to-date benefits advisor at Town Hall or Job Centre about this.
- Child maintenance does not count as 'income' and does not affect benefits in any way, since it is technically not your money at all and pays for your children's needs.
- That support system of friends and family you've got, and those other mature students? Really utilise their fabulousness. Make a study group. Share academic articles. Take notes for each other. Your non-student friends, hang on to the good ones. They will forgive you if you're too busy some of the time, but give them a lot of love for supporting you.
- Look up effective notetaking skills, and come up with a system. If you've ever taken meeting minutes, you're one step ahead. Get gorgeous notebooks which have good quality paper and can open out flat, so you can write on both sides of the paper. Take a LOT of notes, and go over them regularly.
- Do a bit of reading and revising before you attend your first lectures. I promise you, you will have forgotten all of your A Level Sociology if it was more than 10 years ago. When the lecturer says "following from Engels" and you put your hand up, furiously writing notes with your other hand, and say "Engle who?" and all the cool 19-year-olds in your class are giggling, you will wish you'd looked up the key terms and Important Dead White Men in your field.
- Other mature students will lean over and whisper "I'm so glad you asked, I didn't know either!" Go to the pub with those excellent people after your lecture, you have just found your uni soul mates.
- As a mature student, there is a fine line between being pals with the faculty academics, and being a student. First, be a student. If in your final year you really must tell your favourite academics that you love them forever and want to grab them and give them a big hug, navigate with care. Some may be younger than you, some may wish to maintain a professional distance, many will have a perfectly reasonable policy about not being friends with students. Some will hug you back and tell you to stay on forever and do a PhD. I now count a couple of my lecturers as true friends but I'm still a bit starry-eyed about them. They are SO cool.
I now have a masters degree and my time at uni has been one of the best times in my life. Having graduated in August, I've been working part time, trying to decide what the rest of my life looks like and applying to really lovely sounding jobs. My youngest child will sit his A Levels in 2020, and going to uni has allowed me to be flexible and be there for him and his brothers more than a 40-hour-a-week job ever could have. If I hadn't taken the leap and applied to do a degree, I'd be stuck in the same-old jobs, not quite earning enough. Think about yourself in 5 years. Who do you want to be?