A guide to mature finance, funding and affordability
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If you’re reading this blog post, you are most likely looking into funding university as a mature student. If that’s the case, we at Oxbridge Essays feel for you. Less than 25 years ago, university tuition fees didn’t exist in the UK. Local councils even awarded grants to help cover the cost of accommodation and general living expenses. Then came the Teaching and Higher Education Act (1998), which capped tuition fees at £1,000 a year. That cap edged up to £3,210 by 2010. By 2016, it stood at £9,000. And it currently stands at £9,250. Today, prospective students face the possibility of a staggering amount of debt. The sheer scale of that debt would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
Short of having a time-machine, university tuition fees are, now, a fact of life. Funding university as a mature student is an obstacle that your generation has little choice but to endure and overcome.
This blog post aims to help you navigate the possible options for funding for mature students. It is more than a simple summary of mature student finance information that’s already out there. It is more than a basic map of terrible options between a ‘rock’ and a ‘ hard place’. We hope this post will encourage you to think creatively, as you consider funding university as a mature student.
What is a mature student?
In a nutshell, mature students are defined as students who begin undergraduate graduate degrees more than a year after leaving full-time school education. Postgraduate study for higher degrees, however, tends not to recognise mature students as a category at all. Thinking institutionally, there are no mature postgraduate students.
This clarification feels like an important one to make. It puts funding for mature students directly alongside other significant life and finance decisions. These might include: buying a car, taking out a mortgage for a home, or even having a child. But, when it comes to these other decisions, we tend to be more savvy. We might negotiate hard with the car dealership. We might readily consider living in cheaper areas or a smaller property. We might deliberately delay the idea of a family until mid- or late-career. This kind of thinking is responsive and informed. We think about our personal circumstances, weigh up our goals, and do what’s best for ourselves. But this kind of thinking is rarely applied to student finance for mature students.
The following four sections are designed to cover all the possible mature student finance options that might be open to you. They include, we hope, some ideas that you’ve not heard about or have never considered. As you read them, you’ll get a better idea of what student finance for mature students might mean, for you. Let’s see if we can get you closer to achieving your higher education ambitions!
Option 1: You pay in full for the course
We're not going to lie. If goods and services are consumed, they need to be paid for. University tuition is no different.
Government student loan
The simplest and most popular option for many mature students continues to be the government’s own student loan. Mature students embarking on their first undergraduate degree are treated exactly the same as those coming from school.
The loans cover the full cost of tuition fees. Interest is tethered to the Retail Price Index (i.e. the basic rate of inflation). The loans are repayable once you start earning above a certain threshold (currently £26,575). The exact terms and conditions vary over time, so always check details with Student Finance England (or their relevant counterpart in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). Use their handy mature student finance calculator to find out what taking out these loans would mean to you.
Means-tested maintenance loans may also be available to you, depending on your situation. Check the same sites for details of those. Remember: universities are well used to fielding enquiries about student loans. If you have any questions, be sure to make use of their relevant departments.
For others, there may be easier but less talked about ways of privately funding university as a mature student. On reflection, you may find it more straightforward to sell something to pay for your tuition fees. A rummage through the attic might reveal family heirlooms that are highly sought after elsewhere. You might decide that the car you bought a while back didn’t change your life, in the way that postgraduate studies might. Selling up your home and moving to a university in a cheaper part of the country might be the next chapter in your life. Would you swap your grandmother’s jewellery for the chance to do a PhD? It seems a simple exchange when put like that. If you decide to sell something to fund your mature student finances, be mindful that you may be liable for capital gains tax.
Alternatively, you might re-consider economising on your out-goings. If, like the average Londoner, you spend £2,500 in the pub every year, you might consider giving up drinking in exchange for a quarter of your fees. According to one survey, Brits spend £4,500 a year on beauty treatments. If you are amongst them, you might consider putting that money towards funding university as a mature student. Do both, and you’re almost there, no loans required!
Perhaps you don’t have the money necessary for your tuition fees tied up in your current spending habits or things you could sell. In which case, consider discussing your finances with trusted family members and friends. You may find that the Bank of Mum and Dad, siblings, or elderly relatives are keen to support your educational goals. If elderly relatives consider helping you you out with a financial gift, be mindful of the Seven-Year Rule, which could make that gift liable for inheritance tax.
If your family is unable to help, perhaps consider your world of work. Some vocational qualifications may be offset as tax-deductible expenses. If this is the case, the real cost of them might be much less than you think. Many workplaces, too, enjoy assisting employees with further study. MBAs in finance-related institutions are particularly popular. It may be worth discussing your ideas about further study with your line manager or Human Resources department.
Alternatively, have a think about crowdsourcing your postgraduate course. Would a large group of people be willing to put forward a small amount of money each to help you on your next steps? Online crowdfunding platforms, like Patreon or Kickstarter, are becoming popular as a way of raising funding for mature students. Increasingly, they are a very real alternative to student loans or parental contributions. Of course, any successful crowdfunding campaign will need some social media expertise. Charismatic research subjects, or subjects that are particularly attuned to well-defended political positions do particularly well. An attractive personal story and the prospect of interesting, regular updates for subscribers can also attract attention.
Option 2: You get a bursary or grant
In the previous section, we explored ways of privately funding your mature student finance. Although opportunities are fast diminishing, there are still ways of publicly funding your university tuition. If you live in Scotland and choose to do your first degree in Scotland, the Scottish government will pay your tuition fees.
Research Council funding
Theoretically, the UK’s seven Research Councils can provide funds to master’s students. In real-world terms, however, this is unlikely as most of their funds for postgraduate study get allocated to PhD programmes. Regardless of which higher degree you may be considering, it’s worth ,b>checking with your prospective university about Research Council funding, and discussing the likelihood of it being available.
One piece of advice: if you have alternate means of funding your mature student finances, do not disclose them! Universities are looking to recruit as many students as possible but also realise there’s finite Research Council funding available. Unofficially, they may choose to put their energies into supporting applicants that are highly unlikely to be able to study without that funding.
University bursaries and scholarships
Meanwhile, it’s highly likely that there are pockets of money available elsewhere that might fund some or all of your mature student finances. Most UK universities will have small bursaries or scholarships available. It’s good to ask about these as early as possible. Some are means-tested; others awarded by competition. The earlier you find out about them, the more time you have to prepare your application materials.
Ask your prospective universities about funding opportunities. But don’t stop there. Your local library will have details of bursaries, grants, and scholarships from non-university organisations that you may also be eligible to apply for.
Given how many of these available funding opportunities, including Research Council funding, are tied to specific universities, you will soon find that it pays to shop around. The more flexible about what and where you study, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to secure some or all of your mature student finances.
One of the easiest but often overlooked ways of doing this is to consider studying abroad. Brexit has put a dampener on studying in Europe. But if you have dual citizenship and are still eligible for home fees in Europe, looking beyond the UK may be worth your while financially. A Masters at the Sorbonne in Paris is roughly half the cost of something comparable in London! Plenty of universities in Europe offer courses taught in English, too, so don’t any language barriers put you off looking to the continent for your next degree.
Alternately, you might consider looking towards America and Canada. Although university tuition fees in America and Canada tend to be higher than the UK, American and Canadian universities enjoy a longer tradition of philanthropic gifting. This translates into greater scholarship opportunities. Some are even reserved for students coming from the UK/Europe. They may be relatively easy to get if there’s little competition from other applicants.
If temporarily relocating isn’t an option for you, you can still consider universities abroad that offer online degrees. The takeaway here is to be flexible, and think laterally.
Option 3: You work to pay less (or none) of the fees
So you can’t privately fund your mature student finances, and you’ve been unsuccessful in securing public funding. But you still desperately want to do a postgrad course. Are there any other options available to you? The answer is: yes!
Taking up employment at your chosen university can often substantially reduce tuition fees or cover the cost of them completely. Research assistantships (RAs) and Graduate teaching assistantships (GTAs) are the most obvious possibility. These often cover a substantial portion or even all of their recipient’s tuition fees. If you are considering an academic career after your studies, these positions can provide significant teaching experience that will put you in good stead for your first lecturing position too.
Paid university employment
RAs and GTAs aren’t the only option though. At least one London institution reduces fees for those willing to undertake part-time work in their college library; while others actively seek out responsible postgraduates as wardens for their halls of residence. Some courses, particularly those feeding into health/mental health sectors, have paid work experience components too. Others, including some DPsych degrees in Clinical Psychology, come with fully paid-up tuition because it is expected that you’ll work for the NHS during your course of study.
Equally interestingly, many universities offer employees substantial discounts on course fees. For example, Imperial College, London, offers up to a two-thirds reduction of tuition fees for its employees. Increasingly, you’ll find postgraduate students behind the admin desks at many university campuses, taking full advantage of these seldom advertised, in-house staff discounts on tuition fees.
Option 4: Consider if you really need a degree
This final section pauses to consider whether you really need the degree you are considering at all. In the last two decades, the internet has opened up the knowledge base of higher education to an unprecedented degree. University-level lectures and reading materials are readily available online for free. The COVID pandemic has pushed academic conferences onto Zoom, where attendance is often free or at a fraction of the cost of a real-world conference. The opportunities for independent study have never been as good as they are today.
If you’re the kind of learner who needs a tutor to guide, debate, and direct your ideas and reading, there’s a plethora of short courses offered by universities, online courses, and study holidays. These may fulfil the needs of many prospective mature students better than a traditional degree can.
Clubbing together with friends and hiring a private tutor for informal or semi-formal learning is becoming increasingly popular, and may even make you money! Platforms like Meetup are a proven way of bringing like-minded individuals together for just such a purpose, and informal learning opportunities are thriving there, particularly in lockdown.
Peer-taught, university-like organisations have also been thriving. ALT-MFAs, which parallel university-based Masters in Fine Art courses, have become so widely respected in Fine Art education that prestigious graduate art competitions accept entries from them. They are now beginning to be recognised as eligible art schools.
One final possibility, and something that shouldn’t be overlooked, is the possibility of skipping degrees, particularly if you are considering doing both a master’s and a PhD. Relevant work experience, or a publication in your chosen field, can often be sound arguments for skipping a master’s and going straight onto a PhD (where some, if not all, of the same master’s-level modules can be taken informally or as requirement for Research Training).
At doctorate-level, meanwhile, there is the woefully underused PhD by Publication route offered at many universities at a considerably lower cost than regular PhDs, which may prove the perfect, cost-effective option for particularly self-motivated learners. For the brave, the most unconventional savings on mature student finances can be found here. But, even the more cautious should remember that this isn’t an all-or-nothing scenario. You could, for example, aim for six article-length peer-reviewed publications that could make up a PhD by publication and decide, after the first one or two, that a supervised PhD might be a better fit for you after all. At this point, those publications would likely be accepted in lieu of an MA, or could be used as the basis for chapters around which a PhD thesis could be developed.
There are many different ways you might be able to privately fund university as a mature student. If you are flexible, you might ‘shop around’ for the courses and universities with the best scholarship deals. If you take on employment at a university you could leverage their in-house discounts on tuition fees. You might pause to reflect upon the question of whether you actually really need to do a degree at all.
Regardless of where you’re at in your journey to choosing and funding your course as a mature student, we hope that this post has helped you uncover at least one new approach to thinking about mature student finances. Whatever you decide, and whichever route you finally choose, we wish you the very best of luck with your continuing studies!