What does a student look like?
Forget the stereotypes. Think of diversity in a different way. And meet some of the country’s oldest undergraduates.
Maureen Matthews is starting a three-year law degree at the tender age of 79.
She’s not even the oldest student on her new course at the University of West London in Brentford.
Sitting next to her in lectures is 84-year-old Craigan Surujballi.
This isn’t dabbling in learning with an evening course – it’s an intensive, full-time degree, studying alongside people with ambitions to become lawyers.
“You may look at me and see an older face – as may many young people,” says Maureen.
“But through my eyes I’m experiencing the same aspirations that I had before.
“It’s always been to engage in involving myself in education,” she says.
Maureen says older people should not be intimidated by the prospect of learning in an environment traditionally associated with the young.
Think of the law school film Legally Blonde, but in terms of overturning ageism rather than sexism.
“All older people are capable of being up for a challenge. They’ve been through life where they’ve had to meet many challenges,” says Maureen.
If there are practical problems, such as mobility, she says they are never insurmountable and help is available.
“I would say to older people, recognise the fact that your hearing may have decreased, your eyesight may not be as good as it was before, maybe you can’t use the computer very well, but think about strategies that will enable you.”
This extended to taking part in the freshers’ week events for new students, which she says gave her a chance to socialise with other new students at the university.
But this is not a sugar-coated story.
Craigan came to England from the Caribbean in the early 1960s, after a long journey by sea.
He says it was a time of much discrimination, in housing and work, but he had a deep hunger to keep studying and educating himself.
He was in his 30s before he studied for his A-levels – but his ambition to become a lawyer eluded him.
At least until now. Even if he doesn’t get to practise as a lawyer, he says he might be able to help with legal problems at a Citizens Advice office.
When about half of young people now go into higher education, it’s easy to forget how much university was once out of reach for the vast majority of people.
In the 1950s, when Craigan and Maureen were in their 20s, there were fewer than 20,000 student places each year.
Even though the number of older students has increased, it’s still only a relatively tiny number grabbing this second chance to learn.
The most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show there were 25 students starting full-time undergraduate degrees after the age of 70, out of a cohort of almost half a million.
However, the fees system is in many ways more generous to older students. There is no upper age limit on loans to cover tuition fees – and with repayments based on earnings, it’s unlikely that many pensioners will ever pay back what they have borrowed.
The University of West London is unusual in the extent of the diversity of its intake. This is a long way from the Pimms and ivy-clad-buildings end of higher education.
Almost three-quarters of students here are over the age of 21 when they enter.
It has one of the highest proportions of state school pupils – 98% – and more than half of students are from ethnic minorities and from families where no-one has previously been to university.
The university has other students beginning degree courses at a time of life when some of their age group would be thinking about early retirement.
Rita is also studying law – and is a university student at the same time as two of her daughters.
She wants to study law because of the injustices she says she has seen facing women in her community, particularly over issues such as domestic violence.
Clifford, sitting with her in the university cafe, worked when his son was going through university.
Now it’s his turn and he wants to be able to understand the law so that he can stand up for people more effectively as a union representative.
Law lecturer Mike Derks says the range of ages “fit together quite seamlessly”.
Teaching older students is very rewarding. “They seem to get more out of it. It’s unusual, but they’re still very engaged.”
But what do the young students make of finding themselves alongside classmates old enough to be their grandparents?
“At first it was quite weird. But it was actually quite good, because you admire them,” says Patrice Murdoch.
“It shows you can start education at any age and you can always go back. It’s crazy how much they know. It makes us look not so up with it,” she says.
“If anything I feel it’s inspirational that they can come back into education and they always seem to have more knowledge,” said Millie Mbabazi.
“I don’t have any negative stereotypes about older people. It is literally just me, but older.”
Omar Idrees says: “Maureen and Craigan are an inspiration to all of us.
“They’ve proved to us that no matter how old you are, no matter what life has put you through, you can walk in and say, ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m still young, I can still do it.'”