Mature consideration

Last autumn it was 35 years since I embarked upon my undergraduate degree at Another Dublin College That Must Not Be Named. I was a law student (hell, maybe I shouldn’t have specified that, either). As it turns out, I studied with some fellow students who scrubbed up pretty well, career wise, and who are now household names. Gerry Ryan springs to mind, or indeed Brian Lenihan; and there were others. But there are two I want to remember in particular. One of them was Catherine McGuinness (later a Supreme Court judge and President of the Law Reform Commission), and the other was a man called Cecil Bates (I’m afraid I don’t know what happened to him subsequently). And why do I want to remember these in particular? Both of them were mature students.

Catherine McGuinness had already enjoyed quite a rewarding career before she ever came to study law, and in our lectures she added a unique and always interesting voice as a fellow student. If I recall correctly, she had been a member of the Adoption Board, and in that capacity had some really useful insights that fed into subjects like administrative law and family law. Cecil Bates had been a professor of classics at a university in Toronto, Canada: he was reinventing himself as a lawyer, but his knowledge of academic life, the classics and other areas of knowledge was something really special. and although he was if I recall nearly twice my age he became a good friend to me and others.

These two people made massive contributions to my student life, both intellectually and personally, and this persuaded me strongly of the merits of mature students being offered places in ‘ordinary’ undergraduate classes. Later when I was a Lecturer in the Same College I was an enthusiastic supporter of the convention of having a contingent of mature students in each group of students admitted, and as a lecturer I taught some amazing people, including a retired army officer then in his 70s. I didn’t need, and don’t need, any policy of ‘lifelong learning’ to persuade me that mature students have a right to be here.

It was therefore with some dismay that I read recently that some people are now doubting whether it is ‘fair’ to allow mature students to ‘take the place’ of school leavers in undergraduate programmes.  Of course I understand that there are pressures now on students in the current economic conditions, and that many of them are anxious about their future and want the security of a university qualification. But to suggest that mature students should go away and do something else is very short-sighted. We need to ensure that all members of society have an opportunity to learn, to be trained, and to re-train. We need to allow people to aim to do something that suits them better than whatever it is they are doing. And we need to allow for those who, on losing their jobs, may want to learn something new and get new opportunities.

We also need to understand that excluding or discouraging mature students may have a gender-related effect (whether intended or not). But more generally we need to be committed to the idea that all people, whatever their backgrounds, have the same rights and should have the same opportunities. I hope we never get to the point where we will exclude or discourage mature students; not least because the younger school leavers will also be the losers if they no longer benefit from the experience and wisdom of those who come to university at a later age.

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15 Comments on “Mature consideration”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    The Times subsequently carried some excellent letters objecting to Orna Mulcahy’s foolish viewpoint:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/letters/2010/0118/1224262565

  2. Vincent Says:

    Quite honestly a non-traditional University might not be such a bad thing for those over 23. But, I just do not see it.

  3. Jilly Says:

    It was a disgraceful piece: ill-informed and really quite vicious in its implications. But as Aoife says, several people wrote to the letters column to complain, and even the online comments section attached to the column itself were overwhelmingly infuriated. So I don’t think we need to worry to much about it being taken seriously!


    • Jilly, I wish that were true. I read the piece at first but kind of ignored it for all those reasons. But since then I have heard similar comments made by a significant number of people, and on Saturday someone said it on a radio phone-in, and everyone seemed to agree – so I thought it was better to make a point about how dangerous this kind of talk is!

      • Jilly Says:

        Really?! That would be terrible, and for so many reasons. Aside from the gender issues you mentioned, there are HUGE class implications, as a significant group of mature students (of varying ages) are people for whom college at 18 wasn’t an option for socio-economic reasons.

        And of course like every other college lecturer, I love having mature students in my classes – they tend to work harder, be more motivated, have a really useful range of experience and knowledge, and be a great addition to the class in general. I sometimes think it’s the 18-year-olds who ought to have to justify their presence at college, not the older students!

  4. Ros Says:

    I was one of those people who couldn’t avail of third level education first time around because of the socio-economic reasons Jilly mentions. I’ve had to put up with a lot of opposition to my decision from within my own small community and, to a lesser extent thankfully, within some of the class groups I’ve been part of over the years. Making the choice to return to education at any level is often seen as something one does to pass the time. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard “It’s well for you can do it when the rest of us have to work for a living!” Over time I’ve become less upset by these remarks (but they still nip) and console myself by looking back on how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned about life, the universe and everything! I think Orna Mulcahy’s remarks are symptomatic of the general malaise that’s sweeping the nation in aftermath of the downturn. Unfortunately, she speaks for a growing sector of society that are becoming more embittered each week and we mature students are just the latest to fall foul of them alongside immigrant workers and others.


    • Thank you, Ros. I think it is (or should be) obvious that people from all age groups have a need for what third level education offers in order to develop their opportunities, careers or just their lives. Nor is it reasonable to ask what anyone wants their education for – there should be no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ reasons for that. I am completely OK with the idea that a pensioner might want to go back to college just to stimulate their minds, and we should celebrate what they offer when they do that.

      • Ros Says:

        Well, I haven’t reached pension age just yet Ferdinand, but at the rate this research is going I sometimes feel about 90! And the gravel path outside Albert College is playing havoc with my ankles these days!!

  5. kevin denny Says:

    As some have suggested already, for “mature students” read “low income students”.The correlation is not perfect but contributors like Ros above I think would be typical of mature students and we need MORE of you.
    I generally have a few mature students in the class, they turn up for lectures, they sit down the front, they are very attentive, they come up at the end and ask intelligent questions.
    Orna Mulcahy wants higher education to continue being the preserve of the south Dublin middle-classes and should be treated with the contempt she deserves.

  6. cormac Says:

    I wasn’t aware of the Mulcahy viewpoint, or that others shared it.
    Those of us who teach should loudly proclaim the many benefits mature students bring to the classroom

  7. Big Bad John Says:

    A subject dear to my heart.
    In 1996, up against it in all sorts of ways, and exercising the faith my family had in me, I gave up the keys of the company car on a Friday, hung the suit in the wardrobe and showed up at a third level institution in jumper and jeans on the following Monday.
    For the first few months, I often asked myself what the heck I thought I was doing. Only part of our family was reared and I still felt keenly the need to put food on the table.
    But, to cut to the chase, I graduated 3 years later (modestly prevents me from telling you that I got a first and was student of the year) and got a half-decent job on the strength of my newly-acquired qualifications (which I’m still doing – and paying my taxes).
    I shall be eternally grateful to have had the opportunity of following in the footsteps of my older children.
    My life is much richer than it might otherwise have been and the overall experience even taught me not to worry so much. If you can live on little more than fresh air for a few years, then why get unduly perturbed about the slings and arrows of everyday living?
    Mature students rock!

  8. Student Mum Says:

    “Who wouldn’t want to quit the job search and spend a few years learning something new and ogling young ones.”
    As a mature, female student (post grad now but undergrad from the age of 42) I find this piece offensive & ill informed, with the above sentence particularly offensive. Mature students do not suck the life out of the university either!

    We often contribute in seminars when no one else will, and provide a view that has come from experience. I personally self funded, and am still self funding my entire degree, under & post grad. Whose place am I taking? – In my view I am taking up the place I was denied 30yrs ago because only the select few went to university. I am also female, and I agree, to cut mature students places would be affect women more.


  9. […] group at every university campus across the UK. Who knows? The mature students might even bring something positive to the academic melting pot of this […]


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