Life expectancy in the UK has been steadily rising. With nearly a third of the UK population now over the age of 55 and the average person expecting to live to 81, many of us can look forward to a long and fulfilling retirement. One option is going back to university as a mature student and continuing to learn in the “third age” of life.

Later life learning: a growing trend

University life is no longer strictly the domain of school-leavers. Authors Katy Morris and Debbie McVitty give an insight into how education is changing in their book, Never Too Late To Learn: Mature students in higher education
“Mature entry to university has risen from approximately 10% of all graduates and diploma holders in 1980 to nearly a third of the undergraduate student body today.” 
While the definition of “mature” in a university context is 21 and older, there are now institutions that cater to those of us who have led long careers and are approaching retirement.

Freed from the pressures of choosing a career, we can often study for simple pleasure. In fact, Morris and McVitty write that older students are more likely to choose subjects based on an interest in their subject than younger students.

Does older mean you’re wiser? Anecdotally, yes. “Many mature students have had extensive careers and come to university with transferable experience of planning their time, organising people and projects, working in groups and presenting to audiences,” say Morris and McVitty. “This experience is beneficial for all students and helps to shape the culture of learning at any institution.”

According to science, later learning is good for us 

Our brains are like a muscle, and the more we tackle new challenges, the more we keep that muscle strong – no matter our age. Activities that engage the mind, like digital photography, were found to improve memory, according to America’s National Institute on Aging (via the NCBI).
In fact, the study goes further, citing creative writing, theatre and music as activities that had a measurable impact on the adults in the study. Benefits included better memory and self-esteem, alongside reduced stress.

Rosetta’s story

Our series – Colourful Retirement Stories – is full of people trying new things later in life. Take Rosetta, 68, a self-described ‘life-long learner’, who talked through her journey: 
“Before retirement I completed an Honours degree in Psychology, achieved a first-class Arts degree and a Teaching Diploma. When I came to retire, I wanted to put these to good use,” she explains. “I wanted to combine my love of arts and psychology to help people, so went on to study Medicine and the Arts at University of Cape Town and Caliche Hospital. I wanted to become an arts therapist. When I completed this course, I went on to work with Syrian child refugees who had terminal bowel cancer.” 
Rosetta has now continued her learning online, including a course on COVID-19 with the World Health Organization (WHO). You can hear more about her story in our Rewirement podcast episode, ‘So what do you do?’


Best universities for mature students

The Open University

According to the House of Commons Library, distance learning is overwhelmingly popular among older students.

The Open University is an excellent option, and one of the best-known distance learning institutions in the UK.

It offers over 200 qualifications and 400 modules that can be tackled from the comfort of your own home.

Why distance learning could work for you

  • If you’re still working or have other commitments, distance learning is more suited to fitting around this. It offers a far more flexible and personalised schedule.
  • You get all the benefits of later learning, including mastering a new skill, without the time commitment of travelling to a physical location.

University of the Third Age


That said, if you would prefer a less formal environment, University of the Third Age (u3a) is a university with a difference. Once you become a member, you choose your local learning group from over 1,000 across the UK.

Memberships costs on average less than £20 a year, and you’re quickly put in contact with likeminded students pursuing interests similar to yours. There are hundreds of subjects to explore, from art to zoology and everything in between, and groups meet up in person or online to discuss and learn together.

With 450,000 members and growing, the u3a model has been a great success, and it’s open to anyone who no longer has the commitment of full-time work.

What else you need to know about being a mature student

Later life learning has steadily been on the rise for the last 40 years, and as we live longer and richer lives, this trend is only likely to increase.

So here’s a summary of what you could look forward to, by returning to learning:

  • Later life learning plays an important role in keeping our brains active and healthy
  • As an older student, you’ll bring transferrable – unique – skills to the classroom
  • You’ll be part of a growing group of people returning to university later in life
  • You’re more likely to choose a course you’re interested in

And here are three points we haven’t mentioned yet:

  • There’s no upper age limit to any university in the United Kingdom
  • You can apply for a student loan at any age, and use this to cover tuition fees
  • Full-time students of any age are exempt from paying council tax and you may well be eligible for student discounts – including on public transport

Like the body, our brains benefit from exertion – and there’s no better way of exerting yourself than jumping back into education and learning a new skill.


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