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Returning to study later in life

Brooke Boland

Finding balance and getting familiar with the digital landscape are key when returning to study.
Returning to study later in life


People often return to study for one of two reasons. They are looking for a career change and use education to become qualified to work in the field of their (second) choice, or they are life-long learners following a passion for a particular subject. 

Either way, this often happens later in life, when we have other financial and sometimes family responsibilities that need to be balanced with further study. 

So what is the experience like for those who return to higher education later in life than the typical post-secondary student?


Mature age students are defined as those who enter tertiary education at 23 years of age or older. ‘[Many of these students have] left school for about five years or so. They’re out and about, and then decide that it’s not what they want to do for the rest of their life … But they’ve got commitments – they have a mortgage or kids – they are in that time of life,’ Julie Brunner, Online Academic Programs Coordinator at Curtin University, told ArtsHub. 

If you’re thinking of returning to study, you’re not alone. According to The Age, the number of mature age students dramatically increased in recent years. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show around one million 25 to 64-year-olds were engaged in study in 2014, compared with 780,700 in 2004.

Dr Peter Keegan, Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching and Associate Professor of Roman History at Macquarie University, said in his experience it is intellectual curiosity that leads many of his mature age students to enrol. 

Dr Keegan also teaches a large cohort of students online through Open Universities Australia, which provides access to over 150 online degrees from 10 leading Australian universities.

‘The OUA cohort that we cater for at Macquarie is a mixed cohort, there are quite a number of students who are mature in age,’ said Keegan.

‘Trying to balance work, life and study in such a way so that they can manage that process, that’s another challenge… It certainly depending on the number of units you are enrolled in and how intensive the study is.’

People returning to study often turn to online education as a flexible way to fit study around work. 

‘Studying online is a way they can maintain full-time employment and do it piecemeal at night or on weekends, because there is flexibility with online learning. You can do it wherever you are,’ said Brunner.

Dr Keegan agreed, adding that many students who study through OUA complete one unit at a time.

It’s not just about balance

Finding the right balance between study and existing responsibilities is one part of the experience for many students. But another important part of returning to study is developing familiarity with the digital landscape. ‘Some mature age students are of an age where the kinds of resources available online now didn’t exist when they first enrolled in education, if they did study before,’ said Keegan.

Now even degrees on campus are delivered through an online learning system such as Moodle. 

For emerging writer Douglas W. T. Smith, the online learning experience is similar to social media. 

‘In the online forums everyone had opinions, valuable opinions to listen to. Sometimes in a world that’s so busy, being able to slow down and read things online helps to really hear and understand those opinions. I loved it. I loved studying online and I would do it again,’ he said. 

Smith enrolled in two units at Macquarie University through OUA in order to complete a degree he started earlier at a different institution. Unlike other providers, only through OUA can students access single units of university study with full fee HELP funding available (government funding) without applying for a full degree program. This makes it possible for students like Smith to return to higher education.

He also said online study offered the flexibility he needed and adults considering returning to study through online providers like OUA shouldn’t feel intimidated.

‘It might seem strange and like you’re going into the unknown but it is definitely worth it. Everyone has to go from field to field to find out what they like, and once you start that journey you won’t look back,’ said Smith. 

To explore courses available through Open Universities Australia, visit

About the author

Brooke Boland is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. She recently completed her PhD on gender, translation and women's writing and has tutored undergraduates at Victoria University and the University of NSW.