Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach investigated the transition to university life of mature-age students.
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‘Starting university is incredibly difficult. Stepping up academically can be a challenge. Adjusting to a new city can be strange.
Perhaps most confronting of all is adapting socially. These issues are tough for those students coming to university straight from high school. They are, though, even more profound for mature-age students — those aged over 23 — entering university.
I stumbled across this issue as the basis of my PhD. As I was experiencing my own transition in further education, I wondered how mature-age students cope with starting tertiary education.
The experience of “non-school leavers” starting university has been unexplored to date. Little is known about the transition of mature-age students to university life. My focus was on how they managed the move to university socially.
The results were clear. Of the 56 students I interviewed, all of which were enrolled at the University of Melbourne, more than 80 per cent felt they had no close ties with the university.
Although not entirely unique to mature-age students, issues such as supporting children, ageing relatives and paying off debt make it harder for them to adjust. Nearly half the students I interviewed said they found studying while working a challenge. In fact, one student I spoke to was studying and working full time.
In many cases though, mature-age students are part time. Being on campus can be a brief and impersonal experience for those who want to get in and out quickly.
Activities designed to aid the transition to university of students tend to have the opposite effect. Mature-age students were not interested in the alcohol-heavy orientation week program, which included pub crawls.
It was not just the alcohol that mature-age students took exception to. Having already spent money to get to campus, the last thing they wanted to do was spend more.
These early experiences on campus are vital. They can set the tone for the entirety of a student’s degree.
Mature students want a quiet room where they can have a cup of tea and talk about academic issues. Their desires are fairly basic.
Yet, as a group, they are not being looked after by the university. Unlike other groups on campus, mature-age students are struggling to have their voices heard. Student groups have formed, but little has changed.
This is in spite of their increasing numbers. Out of all the first year students at the University of Melbourne, 10 per cent are mature.
Over the last 10 years there has been a steady increase in the number of mature-age students in Australia. This trend shows no sign of stopping.
In the 21st century, there is a real push for lifelong learning. There are no longer jobs for life. People of all ages have to retrain.
With this in mind, older students are highly motivated and hard working. There is a resilience among them. Only one of the 56 students I interviewed dropped out of university, due to a number of different factors, including a change of location. They know what they want to get out of coming to university.
This passion for learning shines through. Academically, mature-age students do well. They are active in the classroom. Many felt they were the ones doing the readings, they were the ones contributing to classes.
Mature-age students are here to stay and offer so much to university life. Yet they are not getting the support they deserve. It is the responsibility of the university to ensure the smooth transition of new students.
It is vital that groups such as mature-age students have specific programs and events to succeed and thrive at university. Given the sacrifices they make, mature-age students need to be encouraged to enrol and persist with higher education.
Support and services have to be put in place to improve the social experience of mature-age students. Otherwise, universities and students alike will miss out.’
► Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach’s thesis is titled: ‘The experience of transition and adjustment for mature-age, undergraduate students in their first year of university’.
* My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.