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Beyond the age divide

Volume 7 Number 9 September 12 - October 9 2011

Cate Green, second-year Arts undergraduate and President of the University’s new mature age students group, 23+, explores the education benefits of student age diversity; for both young and old.

Twenty-five years ago I applied to study music therapy at the University of Melbourne. I missed out by just a few marks. I then applied in 2009 but missed out again.

Having gained some life experience in the intervening years, I figured there must be a “back door” somewhere. I found it in the form of the university’s Community Access Program (CAP) – applied to do an Arts degree and was accepted.

I came finally to the University of Melbourne, but with very narrow blinkers.

I was here solely to reach my destination of a career in music therapy. Eighteen months down the road that destination remains in my sights, but I’m enjoying the scenery along the way. I’ve been happily distracted by subjects way outside my initial interests and have been enriched by them immensely.

Mature age student life is not all sunshine and roses. Initially, I felt like I was submerged in an ocean of youth and feared I would drown. Over the course of my first year, I discovered other mature age students who had had very similar experiences. Our fledgling mature age students group – 23+ University of Melbourne Mature Age Students – was born out of the need for a social and academic support network for mature age students.

While some of the lifestyle issues, needs and challenges facing mature age students are distinctly different from those of school-leavers, many are shared across the student population. There is a delicate balance to be struck here: that in advocating for greater mature age student support it’s important not to alienate us from the wider student body. In so many ways, we are all in it together!

In some respects, the University of Melbourne’s mature age student population is something of an overlooked majority. Statistically, mature age students (those 23 or older) make up over 40 per cent of the University’s student population. The reality is that large numbers of older students roam the campuses of the University, whether they be postgraduate, undergraduate or CAP students.

Lifelong learning is a core reason for such a significant proportion of older students, and the Federal Government’s 2008 Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review) frequently notes its social importance. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the pragmatic – such as updating skills to meet the needs of the numerous career changes that are part of 21st century life – through to the altruism of extended research, or the impulsive searching of a ‘mid-life crisis’. Some 23+ students have merely emerged from an extended youth and (belatedly) discovered an exciting world of academic opportunities.

For all of us – mature age students and school-leavers alike – we only have limited time to grasp such opportunities and make a contribution to society.

The joy of mature age students is their positive response to learning and academia: they soak up knowledge like the ‘magic chamois’ of late-night television advertising. An added bonus is the nature of their academic ‘products.’ The mature age students’ assignments, essays and papers are rarely single-dimensioned regurgitations of lecture material and other ‘off-the-shelf’ resources. Invariably, these are rich weaves of lecture material, research and – most importantly – life experience. It is the latter that, I believe, remains an untapped university resource.

My anthropology tutorials of last semester proved to be my most rewarding university experience to date, and demonstrated just how such life experience can play a central role in our learning experience. Over the course of 12 weeks, the tutorial class shared their life stories and experiences, which were then linked back to the lecture theory. The tutorial became a forum for students to voice their individual experiences of eating disorders, a young American man’s experience of being marginalised for being a ‘black ballet dancer’, to a student’s battle with stereotypical views of mental illness.

This learning experience will stay with me forever. Why? Because for a moment in time, the barriers between old and young, black and white, and even good and bad were broken down. Knowledge flowed freely across this barrier-free divide; this is what university life should be about.

A recent discussion with a school-leaver colleague revealed to me the vital nature of diversity within our student community. My friend spoke of boyfriend issues; I countered with ex-husband issues. On reflection, I realised that a great many school-leavers mostly relate to adults either as parents, teachers or bosses, but rarely as colleagues.

Conversely, most adults rarely enjoy relating to teenagers or young adults on an equal basis, but most typically as ‘children’ or employees. The classroom of campus life can potentially add a vital dimension to the lives of all students, young and old: the possibility to learn to relate as equals, rather than according to some hierarchical structure.

The life experience of mature age students – many whom have scaled the mountain peaks of success, and clambered over the minefield of lost dreams – is a rich resource for younger students. Equally, the young can provide mature age students refreshing and important perspectives on a fast-changing world, keeping them grounded and inspired. All that is required is the barrier-free egalitarian domain I discovered in my anthropology tutorial.

If I can join such conversations and be infused with the energy and wisdom of younger students while offering an alternative wisdom and support, not only am I a richer person, but hopefully the future leaders of our country will have seen the importance of turning the theoretical idea of equality into a practical reality.

23+ University of Melbourne Mature Age Students is a UMSU affiliated club. For further information, contact the group