Mature age students are increasingly filling Australia’s universities and the adult learners are not just graduates studying for a master’s degree or PhD, they are stepping into the world of academia for the very first time.
From 2011 to 2016 there were an extra 90,000 students above the age of 25 enrolled at university, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Around two out of every five of those students had not yet already received a bachelor’s degree.
Shifting gears and swapping careers
Criminology lecturer Adam Masters came to academia after 24 years in the public service.
His current discipline typically skews older, but in 2003 when he lined up to enrol at university he was surrounded by young people.
“I was old enough to be their father,” Dr Masters said.
The proportion of mature age students enrolling at university is trending larger. (Supplied: University of Michigan)
Dr Masters started his bachelor’s degree while teaching at the Australian Federal Police College.
“It was sort of doing adult learning and being an adult learner at the same time so it was an interesting mix,” he said.
“I decided then and there that I wanted to continue doing that for the rest of my life.
“There’s a real energy around universities and I still feel that energy, that curiosity. It feels much more alive.”
It was a difficult decision for Dr Masters to give up his job with the Australian Federal Police, but his new career has figuratively and literally broadened his horizons.
“I never would have pictured myself in Red Square in Moscow or in China,” he said.
“It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t pursued adult learning.
Dr Masters said many people feel they do not time to retrain or further their education.
“You’ll never find the time to go back and study. You’ve got to make the time.”
Parents pursue lifelong passions
Adult education worker Kim Rybinski decided to work part-time so she could further her education.
Ms Rybinski earned her first of three degrees at the University of Technology Sydney while raising three young children.
At one point, she was attending the same university as her husband Michael Rybinski and son Cameron.
This year she completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice.
“The thought was, ‘I will turn 50 whether I have a degree in law or not’,” she said.
“You’re still going to age but you can make decisions along the way that will add to your life. It’s important because we need to remain active and engaged citizens.”
From an undergraduate’s perspective, a stereotypical mature-age student will sit at the front of class and often raise their hand to ask questions during lectures.
Now, some professors may be delivering lectures to empty theatres due to the advent of electronic lectures.
Ms Rybinski said modern technology made university more accessible for adult learners but has found that it was always better to attend lectures in person.
“I was passionate about the subject and excited that I was studying it,” she said.
“To be able to talk about issues with lecturers who knew their subject really well was a bonus.”
Life experience paves a clear path
The determination to complete a degree can come from the fulfilment of pursuing lifelong passions, while other adult learners are resolved to get ahead in their career through applying a work-like ethic to study.
Mr Rybinski was a technician when he began studying electrical engineering and went on to complete a Master of Engineering Management after graduation.
Technology can be a platform for some students or a distraction for others. (Supplied: Pexels)
“I was one of the oldest people in the classroom,” he said.
“There were a lot of kids who came out of their degrees and they couldn’t get a job, so a lot of them went back and did a master’s with no work experience.”
Mr Rybinski said it was still the case today that young graduates struggled to find work.
Industry experience meant he had a lot of knowledge to share with younger students.
“We were working in groups on how to manage people and they had no idea,” he said.
“I found I might as well have been the lecturer sometimes. Imparting my knowledge and my experience strongly reinforced my learning.”
Ms Rybinski admitted it could be difficult for younger people to find their way after university.
She said her son, who also completed a law degree and was enrolled in some of the same units and lectures as his mother, was not yet working in the legal field.
“All of my children have graduated from university,” Ms Rybinski said.
“In that respect, I was a good example to them that study was important.
“On the last day three of us had lunch together to celebrate the fact that we were all there together.
“It was quite a unique moment and I’m grateful for that.”