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Older students 'going for it'

"People over 40-years-old can be really successful at university and enjoy it."

This sentiment is among key findings from a postal survey of 1600 students over the age of 40 at Victoria University of Wellington.

Judith Davey, Social Policy Senior Lecturer at Victoria, is leading the Education in Mid and Later Life research project, analysing the situation of people aged 40+ taking up education at the University. It is positioned in the context of an ageing society and a changing social and economic environment.

The project research looks at people from age 40 onward including those in mid-career and those nearing and in retirement.

The 40+ age group was selected as being old enough to be well removed from "initial" education with experience of adult life, families and careers.

Younger members of this group are still able to contemplate long-term career development, but are old enough to be vulnerable to change in the labour market. The choice of age 40 as a starting point also recognises literature on the human life-course which suggests that a significant transition may occur about this age.

The research outlines the characteristics of 40+ students, their motives for studying, incentives and barriers to educational participation, and explores their learning experiences.

Davey's findings show people aged 40 and over are a small but growing minority of students at Victoria University and, compared to the total student population, are more predominantly female.

A monograph of the research, entitled Going for it - older students at Victoria University will be launched by Victoria University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon on 14 May.

The monograph takes its title from responses to one of the survey questions. When asked what advice they would give to an older person considering university study, the overwhelming reply was "go for it!"

Davey says while the vast majority of older students are satisfied with their study, their experiences are not all the same and not all have it easy.

"There are distinct groups involved," she says.

"Some are working full-time and trying to fit study into very busy lives, but most of these have good incomes and often financial help from their employers. Those who are full-time students, on the other hand, may have financial problems as they try to meet the commitments which people have in mid-life, such as families and mortgages to support. Other groups include women who left school early and have brought up families before returning to study and people whose working lives have been interrupted by redundancy. "

Davey says the most commonly expressed barrier to study was the demand on time made by work and family commitments.

"However, there were also incentives: the most important being internal motivation, followed by enhanced job prospects, support from family, friends and university staff and a desire not to waste the financial investment in their education."

Survey respondents also pointed to the advantages of being a 40+ student, including wider life and work experience, more motivation and focus and a higher degree of confidence and maturity.

Most considered that gaining a qualification from Victoria University would have a positive effect on their future lives, especially on their work and career prospects, future study intentions and future incomes.

Research around the project is ongoing. Nine follow-up studies are being conducted face-to-face with specific groups of survey respondents.

The findings will be made available to the New Zealand Institute for Research on Ageing, the first such institute in the country, recently established at Victoria University.

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