For reasons which may suggest the mind is searching for mental challenges, I have been admiring the initiative of a dozen or so older people who have chosen to go (back) to university. In some cases they are university virgins, spreading their intellectual wings for the first time, post-children, pre-retirement.
Others are going back, 20 or 30 years after their first degree, to take on post-graduate study. The concept of mature age study has been around a long while, but statistics suggest the incidence of older people taking on academia is rising. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says one million Australians aged 25-64 were engaged in study last year, compared with 780,700 in 2004. Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach, a lecturer from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, completed a PHD on how mature-age students transition into their first tertiary degrees. Mrs Dawborn-Gundlach told The Age mature age students were motivated by the push for lifelong learning. “These days you don’t have the same job for life, you retrain.”
More than 40% of mature-age students in the study said they found juggling work and study a challenge, and around 60% experienced “a general feeling of stress.”
An expensive learning curve for some
I took on university for the first time aged 30. I’d left school at 15 so was full of trepidation about the challenges ahead. Luckily the academic year was split into four terms, so by Easter I had enough results back to suggest I could finish an Arts degree.
What set me on this subject was a Facebook post by freelance travel journalist Lee Mylne, a former Daily Sun colleague. Lee (pictured above) told her friends this week she was going to university after “many years.”
She was accepted into QUT’s professional doctorate program and in three years will graduate as a Doctor of Creative Industries (Journalism). What surprised me (and Lee) was the enormous amount of support and encouragement from friends; it seems more people would do it if they could afford it.
There is a fair bit of government support out there for study initiatives, including student loans, scholarships and funding for research degrees. For example, a Commonwealth scholarship in 2014 paid just under half the cost of a humanities degree (totalling $11,574), according to data in a piece by Chris Pash in Business Insider. Subsidised or not, it is a big financial and lifestyle commitment. My niece has ventured back into academia, looking to expand on her facility for languages. But at $2000 a subject she is reconsidering.
“Academia has gone through some serious changes in the past 12 years since I last studied. Not only do you have the regular essays/presentations, you also are marked on your contribution to online blogs on the weekly topic, adding to the weight of work you have to do. Everyone can see what you write and everyone can critique what you write, and it can’t just be an opinion piece, you have to cite it.”
Back in my day, oh aye
Wind the clock back 35 or so years and the first and best thing I did at university was a touch-typing course. No email or internet research in my day! Just typing and re-typing.
Luckily there was a coterie of mature age journalism students in the first-year intake at the University of Southern Queensland.
After a week or two it started to feel like home and there was the undoubted bonus of studying Australian literature with Bruce Dawe.
It was a bit of a (financial) struggle). I had a permanent debt at the university book shop and was paying off a large dentist bill at $20 a week. But for those of us who went to university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, tertiary education was still free. As music journalist and USQ graduate Noel Mengel says: “My kids would be outraged.”
In the early days I met Kev Carmody in the university library. I knew Kev from the local folk club where he played in a bush band and had lately started singing his own songs. In the late 1970s libraries were still using index cards. Kev says he had no idea how to take a book out of a library, so he sat there reading a book, quietly watching how people went about using the catalogue system.
You’ll get some sense of this Aboriginal man’s strength of character in the documentary Songman which is being shown on ABC TV on March 15. We had a preview at his live concert in Brisbane last month.
A learned foot in the door
There’s a lot to be said for acquiring some life experience and then going for an education. There was initial resistance inside daily newspapers to the idea of academic journalists. The old school, who had started as copy boys and served lengthy cadetships, resented the slow but steady influx of graduates.
By the mid-1990s, newspaper editors were starting each year with a pile of applications from bright young things, all of whom had at least one degree. Even with a Gap Year thrown in, new graduates emerge from the system aged 20 or 21, well-educated but light on life experience.
Mature age students benefit from having acquired some life skills and wisdom, but more importantly, if you are going to university aged 29 or 30, chances are you will be 100% committed to achieving your goal.
While technically not a mature age student, Noel Mengel went back to uni after working for three years in magistrate’s courts in the Queensland public service.
“I realised I was never going to get part-time study done,” he said. “And I had a disturbing vision of winding up as a country town solicitor.”
Noel recently left The Courier-Mail after 25 years as one of the country’s leading music writers. Along the way he wrote an award-winning book (RPM), played in rock bands and still does (The Casuarinas) and his name is frequently on the lists of judges for music industry awards.
Kev Carmody went on to become an internationally known songwriter with six albums to his name, a tribute album (Cannot Buy my Soul) and a collaboration with Paul Kelly, From Little Things Big Things Grow, which as Kelly remarks in Songman, became universally known without ever being played on radio.
Carmody was and still is an important voice for his people. There will be those who would say he would have achieved all that and more without having to go to university. But then we’d not have the wonderful story about his debate with the University of Queensland over parking fines, land tenure and who owed who money!
Is there a doctorate in the house?
Meanwhile my 40-something friend Kelli is on the cusp of graduating with an honours degree in occupational therapy, some new young friends and no regrets.
“I found it agonisingly difficult at times,” she said. There are commitments and expectations for a mature age student that simply aren’t there for most school-leavers. The other issue is I now have a whacking-great debt to the government which may or may not be paid out before I die.
“But I’m an infinitely more balanced person for having completed this study, although apparently I’ve now lost my mind entirely and intend to pursue a PhD!’
“My kids said ‘Mum, didn’t you tell us that if you started talking about a PhD then we should talk you out of it?’…
“Why yes, I did, but don’t worry about what I said then….”