If you missed out on university first-time round, you’ve discovered an interest in philosophy and think you might want to go on and study it at university, find out what the prospects really are from mature students Timothy Hilgenberg (Birkbeck College, Graduated 1998) and Mandy Wax (University of Hertfordshire, Finalist in 1999).
There are lots of difficult choices that have to be made before you even start on your philosophy degree (see below). But at the end of the day, for most people it’s not the range of choices which is stumbling block, it’s fear. Fear of finding oneself surrounded by fresh-faced, sharp-witted school-leavers. Fear of the intimidating academic atmosphere. Fear of it all just being too difficult. And fear of being back to square one after the years of establishing oneself as an adult. Well, from experience we can say that, yes, some of that fear is justified. But the good news is that if you can beat it, there’s much to be gained from taking the plunge and going back to college.
One of the authors, Tim, went to Birkbeck College, London, the only university in the UK to specialise in part-time courses for mature students. It was an odd feeling to finally find himself among a whole host of other mature students, all with an interest in philosophy and each one holding a different view of what it is. For mature students to find themselves amongst a new group of people, many of whom are much younger then oneself, can also be quite daunting. Speaking to others isn’t always quite as easy as it was all those years ago. Some will take a little longer to get into the social swing of things, but eventually student life just catches up with you and before you know it you’ll be chatting away to most of your fellow students.
In a more orthodox university, it can be more difficult. For the other author, Mandy, things were quite hard at first. She felt quite misplaced at times: all the school-leavers who were living on campus became friends with each other, and many mature students were already in crowds as they had studied on access courses together. She felt as though there was no place for the mature student living at home. Her friends who had gone to University ten years previously said `Don’t worry, it takes time, you will make friends’. They were absolutely right. In the second year a close group of friends formed, from fairly different backgrounds but all passionate about philosophy.
Despite the difficulties, the social side of things may not be the most daunting aspect for mature students with an established network of friends. It’s the return to studying, and in particular the dreaded essay, which puts most people off. Nearly everyone we studied with found essay writing daunting. Some went into overdrive and just knocked them out at a phenomenal rate, others would dither until the last minute. Some would have a plan to provide them with several essays per exam topic, others would just do the minimum.
Tim was told during his induction one thing which he was not to forget: All mature students constantly think they are behind – don’t let it worry you unduly. Easier said than done! None of our fellow mature students ever really stopped worrying and you’ll find a constant topic of conversation is whether you have read this book or that and how difficult it is to get hold of the reading. But the fact that mature students tend to worry more means they don’t tend to fall into the bad habits of school-leavers. Although it would be true to say that you can pass your course using the “seat of your pants” method of studying, this does not seem to be the method that mature students usually adopt!
For mature students, the most critical point when doing a degree in philosophy is the summer break after the first year. At Birkbeck the drop out rate after the first year is about 30-35%. But that isn’t just because the course is too hard, or it isn’t what was expected. Many face particular problems such as changes to the work situation or problems at home. After the first year one of our fellow students left for a concert tour in America lasting several months, another got married. Other typical problems are changes in employment, from losing their job to promotion or even re-location. Many of these circumstantial changes cannot be anticipated, but thinking hard about the long-term commitment a degree requires before signing up can help prevent you falling by the way. But even if you only do the first year, it isn’t a waste of time as the first year is usually geared to give you at least a good foundation in the subject.
There’s no doubt that if you’ve been out of full time education for a while, you will quickly realise that any hope of just “popping over to uni” to take in a lecture won’t work. Alas not all lectures will grip you equally and particularly if you are doing the course through evening classes or distance learning a long day at work can make them seem to last forever. In addition to lectures you will have to do readings to prepare for the topics and eventually you will also have to write essays. One of the advantages of doing an access course before staring university is that it can help ease you back into the swing of studying.
Despite all the problems, we both found the experience extremely rewarding. Over the months and years philosophy begins to take shape, names you will have heard referred to will be given a context and a great number of new ideas will be added to yours. No longer the amorphous subject it was at the outset, you begin to feel that there is some kind of structure to the subject. Don’t expect total enlightenment, however. One of the very first things a lecturer said was that at first we would be scared and a little confused, as we continued we would find ourselves a little less scared and a little more confused and finally at the end we wouldn’t be scared at all, but very confused – something many of us found to be closer to the truth than we ever thought.
For Mandy, the university experience for the mature student is much more than a top-up of education. Philosophy has expanded her existing horizons; she is now interested in a huge variety of areas, such as science, astronomy and the law. She says, “I know that I think and study in a much more sophisticated way to the way I did before. This gives me great satisfaction. The liberation you feel when you are studying is simply fantastic. In the first year, I likened myself to a sponge, absorbing everything and attempting to hold onto it all, giving very little back in the way of opinions. The second year brought tentative attempts at holding my own, but still perhaps not committing myself entirely. I anticipate that my third and final year will prove that I have learnt enough to begin to philosophise in my own right, and that is a very exciting prospect.”
Tim finished his course this year. For some of his fellow students at Birkbeck this marked the end of the road. “I’ve had enough of this,” was a common expression. “I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next, but I think I need a break from philosophy,” was another, but there always is a core who will continue.
In Tim’s view, it’s not the years of study, nor the finals that are the worst thing about studying philosophy, but the feeling how much you miss it when you realise that it is all over…
Back to College: The Options
Full-time, Part-time or Distance Learning?
If you’re bringing up a family, being a full-time student can be an ideal solution as you attend lectures while the children are at school and you are back in time when they get home as well as being around during the school holidays. But the big question is, can you afford not to work for a few years and take a degree course full-time, or will you need to continue to work, leaving you only with the option to take the course part-time?
Part-time study usually means attending evening or day lectures during the regular university term or semester time, ideal for those with fixed working hours and who live close enough to a university that offers part-time courses. Part-time courses can take longer than the normal three year course at a university in England or Wales. One university specifically set up for the purpose of giving mature students in full-time employment access to university education is Birkbeck College in London, which offers most of its classes in the evening.
The third option is distance learning which is offered by the Open University (OU).
Studying at the OU means you follow the course programme by working through self-study packs, completing assignments, watching specific TV programmes shown in the early hours on BBC2, and attending seminar meetings on an annual or termly basis. This is good for people, who either live too far away from a university or whose work schedule doesn’t allow for regular attendance at lectures.
How do I get in?
If you have A-levels you should simply do what any other school leaver does, apply through UCAS (University Central Admissions System) to the university of your choice.
If you’ve haven’t got A-levels it is a little different and depends on the university. Some will take you provided you are prepared to take an access course. These are run by local education authorities and usually last one year, part-time. They are designed to give you some idea what a range of subjects entail and to prepare you for university study.
Other universities may simply ask you to do a little test or come for an interview. According to the admissions tutor at Birkbeck College, where admission is by a “philosophical questionnaire” and interview, one can usually tell from the answers if you have an aptitude for philosophy or not – but he warns, passing the entry qualifications alone won’t make you pass your finals!
Analytic, Continental or Eastern?
Most philosophy degrees in UK universities concentrate on analytic philosophy, an umbrella term which represents the pre-eminent approach to philosophy in the English-speaking world. The majority of the better-known philosophers fall under this category, such as Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Mill and Russell.
The term “continental philosophy” is an Anglo-American invention, referring to the philosophical schools which have flourished across the channel over the last century or so, such as existentialism, phenomenology and post-structuralism. If these represent your main interest, you’ll have to be more choosy about where you go. In many UK universities, there is very little of this work studied, and often it is treated with some hostility.
Eastern philosophy is another matter altogether. You’re generally better off looking outside philosophy departments altogether and checking the options in departments such as theology or oriental studies.
Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HX. (www.birkbeck.ac.uk: 2020 update)
Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA. (www.open.ac.uk: 2020 update)
UCAS, PO Box 28, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 3SA. (https://www.ucas.com/students: 2020 update)