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Back to university - at 62 - Nicola Foote

Features | By Nicola Walker

It's never too late to learn. Forty years after graduating, Nicola Foote, 62, is thrilled to be returning to university rather than isolating at home

Forty years after I first graduated (Applied Maths, Warwick), I’m going back to university. This time, aged 62, I’m studying Social Policy at York.

I’m studying full time, with as much face-to-face teaching as seems safe. It was the prospect of a long, socially isolated winter that prompted me to return to education. I may fear the virus, but I have a greater fear of boredom and isolation.

It’s going to be very different second time around. I won’t be living in student accommodation, for starters. I probably wouldn’t need to leave home at all during these COVID-infested times if I didn’t want to.

I could probably stay in my own kitchen for the whole academic year and relive my younger student days: let things rot in the fridge, never wash up, drink endless coffee and smoke endless roll-ups. We were allowed to smoke in student accommodation in the ’70s.

This time around, I won’t have to worry about the impact of my grades on my getting a job. If I then do my PhD, I’ll have reached state-pension age by the time I’ve finished. I won’t have to suffer the rejection by British Airways pilot training scheme I received in 1979 – I found out later that they didn’t recruit their first female pilot until 1987. Nor will I have to endure my actuarial exams again.

I still remember picking up my first student-grant cheque, a large sum of money to be frittered away on shoes and alcohol. These days, that would be a loan, but I won’t be getting one of those. It’s not allowed, apparently, as I’m over 60. I’m too old – so I have to self-fund. This rather reduces diversity among us oldies, restricting the intake to the solvent.

I’ve felt a need to dust off the old grey cells, but I’ve seen no evidence so far that my new university, York, is treating me any differently from the way it treats my twentysomething counterparts – and that is exactly what I want.

I don’t want to be patronised because I am older and feel past it. I’d rather be seen as a strawberry that’s really tasty when it’s properly ripe than as a wrinkled old prune.

But mainly I want my age to be invisible. That could be made possible courtesy of COVID distance-learning and facilitated by Zoom – and an awful lot of make-up, a diet and a wig. Still, I want to attend at least some lectures in the flesh.

I’m really looking forward to starting. It’s less scary than first time around because I’ve been there before. This time, I have the benefit of life skills that have taught me valuable lessons: don’t bother worrying about stuff such as how to get my library card. If I leave it long enough, someone else will have sorted out the problem and I can emulate them. I’ll only lose my library card anyway.

I have no fear of failure because, if I fail, it doesn’t really matter. I will be slightly touchy about any potential ageism; perhaps we need a Rock Against Ageism movement, the way we had Rock against Racism in my yoof. It could be fronted by Mick Jagger, Madonna or Paul Weller.

It does feel like the start of a new era for me. Perhaps I’ll get some added bonuses: fewer pop-up ads on my computer for funeral costs and earwax removal – and more for cheap flights for students. When I get my university card, I’ll be able to access loads of student discounts, although I’m not sure I can get a free Senior Railcard as well. I’ll find my pockets full of half-chewed pencils again, rather than the dog-waste bags I’ve got used to in recent years.

Bring on the best days of my life!

This story was from November 2020 issue. Subscribe Now