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Leaving Work to Study

Who goes back to college?

Ever since started in 1999 we've been asking our users, at regular intervals, what you plan to when you quit work. Whilst between 3 and 4% of you are starting your own businesses and another 3% are thinking about going travelling, a relatively whopping 7% of you tell us that you're leaving work to study or go back to college.

Socio-economic factors obviously have a bearing on this. In 2001 for example, a combination of the dot com bust and the terrorist attacks in the United States saw some universities and business schools reporting increases of up to 70% in the number of applications to their courses, compared to the previous year.

Every year, over 100,000 people over the age of 21 choose to enter higher education - that's nearly one quarter of all places. As a mature student, you won't be alone in going back to college. Banish images of being immersed in a sea of spotty teenagers and their hormones; half of those going back to college after the age of 21 are older than 25. In addition to increased openness towards mature students, many institutions are looking to take on a greater proportion of part-time students. You won't have to give up your career completely if that would be a problem. Also, if life in a hall of residence or squalid student flat doesn't appeal, then studying near to home is usually possible. However, bear in mind that the distribution of higher education centres around the country is patchy, especially away from major cities.

So, here follows a brief guide to leaving work and going to college. This article should be taken as an summary of some of the options rather than an exhaustive guide. At the end of the article, you'll find a collection of links to resources that should help you to get onto the right track.

What to study

There are over 42,000 courses on offer at more than 261 different universities, higher education colleges and institutions in the United Kingdom. You're going to have to decide what you would like (or need) to study and where. Maybe you feel you need an extra qualification to move your career to the next level? Do you need to take time out from the rat race to clear your mind and determine your priorities? Do you want to develop some transferable skills, perhaps in IT or management? Or maybe you just feel like studying for study's sake?

The chances are that your requirements will be met by a course offered somewhere. With such an abundance of subjects, from kite flying to curry making, photography to philology, choosing between them could be your biggest problem.

Once you have a good idea of what you'd like to study for the next year or so, you'll have to decide what type of course would be most suitable. Will this be your first degree (which will require 3-4 years of commitment), a Masters degree (usually just a year), a doctorate (2-4 years) or a vocational course (days, weeks or months)?

Much if your choice is made for you by your record of academic achievement to date. Nobody embarks on a doctorate without having a good first degree, for example.

If you want to get a degree, but don't have the A-Levels, there are Access and Foundation courses available that could help you on your way. Some Access courses lead directly to places at college while others serve as general preparation and an opportunity to develop skills.

It's likely that your study skills will have deteriorated a little over the years, but this is usually reversible after a little practice - the human mind is excellent at recasting itself in this way, you really have nothing to worry about. If you have the sort of mind that wants to learn you probably have a mind that can.

Where to study

The calibre of your qualification, the quality of teaching, the cost of living and studying and who your fellow students are will all hinge on where you decide to study.

There are higher education colleges of one description or another in most towns, but you would be advised to do a little research on how well regarded they are. Indicators you should be aware of include the quality of buildings and facilities (is your seat of learning a crumbling, waterlogged concrete monster or an ancient architectural wonder, complete with high speed Internet access in every room?); publishing record (do the lecturers publish books and papers because they have to in order to keep their tenure or because they have a genuine passion for their subject?); and research ranking (do they receive millions of pounds from funding bodies or are they strapped for cash?).

How much you get out of your studies will depend on the quality of teaching you receive, as much as on your own talents. If you decide to do a PhD, for example, it's likely that you'll spend a lot of time working under a supervisor. His or her personality, ability and temperament could have a major bearing on your own enjoyment and success.

It's less likely that you'll have such regular one-to-one interaction with your tutors if you're studying for a Masters or even an undergraduate degree. Nevertheless, you don't want to be stuck with an unhelpful or just plain unpleasant academic mentor. Talking to a range of current students may be most helpful. Circumspection now will avoid the need for retrospection later.

Social Life

Believe it or not, you won't have to spend every waking hour poring over books in a stuffy library, or tearing your hair out when your word processor disappears a week's worth of assignments. No, it's probable that you'll meet a few people who are willing to have a drink with you from time to time. Who knows, maybe you'll fall in with a bad crowd and spend your days sitting in the square, shouting obscenities through a cracked mouth made thick and lumpen by cider and cheap drugs? Or perhaps you'll take time out to indulge in croquet and bridge or become a fanatical pentathlete? These are the lifestyle options open to you at university, do not resist, this is the real reason you decided to take up studying again.

The Admissions Cycle

Admissions for most college courses need to be sorted out before the start of the next term i.e. September this year. In the highly probable circumstances that you do not have enough money to pay your own way through college, the deadline for money from the funding councils is as early as May 1st. So, it's definitely time to start looking at the options now. Set aside time for interviews and visits in the summer months. You should have an offer of a place soon afterwards and be attending lectures before October.


The onus is on you to find funding. You'll need to cover a range of expenses. Travel, books, stationery, accommodation, food, drink, fees and even a computer (a laptop is now compulsory for students at Warwick University!) will all need to be covered.

Unless you've made a small fortune in your previous career and are willing to invest it in your education, you're going to have to look for help. If your course of study has a vocational flavour, your bank may be willing to offer a Career Development Loan of up to about £8000. It may be more difficult to convince them to lend to you if your studies will not increase your earning power in a very obvious way.

Things look a little rosier if you're going after a postgraduate course. You can apply for funding from the Research Councils. The only problem here is that there will be fewer offers of funding than there are postgraduate students - you will have to compete for the cash as well as your place. A strong academic record is a definite asset - you'll need a 2:1 degree to be even considered in most cases. Below is a list of Research Councils in the UK:


Yet another alternative is commercial sponsorship, where you find yourself a place on the interface between academia and business. This may be the most lucrative option, but at a price. Firstly, the scope of your studies may be somewhat limited by what the sponsor is willing to pay for - it must have some commercial relevance. Secondly, you may lose rights over any intellectual property you create. Finally, it may be a condition of sponsorship that you have to go and work for the firm once your studies have been completed. Of course, this guarantee of a job may turn out to be just what you need. However, what of you decide to strike out alone with your renewed confidence and abilities? There could be penalties for doing so.

It's possible that your university or institute has access to research money, where specific projects are funded by government grants or private money. For example, the Wellcome Trust offers a limited number of awards up to a value of £12,000 for specific projects. Your supervisor may need research assistants whatever their field of study. By keeping your eyes open and ears to the ground, you may get to hear of such unique opportunities before anybody else.

The importance of networking cannot be overstated. People with initiative are as highly sought after in academia as in other walks of life. Such people are perceived to have what it takes to do creative, high quality research. Instances of gaining a place by proposing own original research to companies or institutions are not unknown. So, if you have a good idea, don't hold back. Imagination, persistence and powers of persuasion can get you a long way with the right people.

Part-time study

The fastest growing group within postgraduate education, part-time students enjoy added flexibility. They can work alongside their studies and manage debt more carefully.

The part-time approach to study may be useful if your current employer has an interest in helping you acquire new skills. It also appeals to single parents, mature students and those new, or returning to, education. Finally, if you're continuing on from your first degree, being a part-timer allows you to kick-start your working life at the same time - you can earn as you learn and boost your CV.

Charities and Funds

There are a lot of largely untapped funds out there - you just need to find them, probably by ploughing through a lot of information. are an excellent starting point for researching these financial resources online. Your local library will also have a list of charitable trusts and addresses.


An excellent source of extra income while you study is to teach at undergraduate or further education level. Some institutions will not allow such work, but it's definitely worth checking if you think you have something to offer as a teacher. Bear in mind that your workload will grow as you take on more responsibilities.

Most universities offer a number of these positions to research students. The deal is for the student to teach in return for waived fees and a yearly award of around £6000. While this can be a good option to take, you need to consider how your teaching workload will fit in with your own research. Obtain a clear contract stating your duties, your amount of teaching hours, and salary.


  1. Decide what you want to study
  2. Select an appropriate level of study - vocational training, professional qualification, degree, masters or postgraduate study.
  3. Choose somewhere to study, taking into account location, cost of living and quality.
  4. Prepare your application and secure funding or budget accordingly.

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