Meet the mature students blazing a trail through the recession. . .
More and more people are returning to college to enhance their life prospects
Twenty years ago they stood out like a somewhat wrinkled sore thumb. Until recently mature students were treated as exotic creatures who livened up seminars and put their younger classmates to shame with their diligence.
Increasingly, they are making their presence felt at third level and are well on the way to making up a quarter of the student population.
There has been an unpredecented surge in the number of mature students seeking college places, because of the economic downturn.
Faced with other choices, such as the dole queue or emigration, thousands of unemployed people are choosing to go to college, where they can continue to draw benefits.
There were 71,843 online applications this year for higher education places, with an increase this year of 26pc in the number of mature student applicants (defined as those aged 23 and over).
The Department of Education expects that the proportion of mature students will continue to rise from its current level of 13pc to 19pc by 2016 and to 25pc by 2022. In some degree courses, mature students already make up a quarter of entrants.
Traditionally, mature students have been driven by a sense of academic purpose to return to college. But that may be changing as jobless young people see going to college as a way of increasing their qualifications while continuing on social welfare.
"There is a definite change in the type of mature student applying for a place,'' said Denis Staunton, director of Access at UCC. "We are seeing more people who were made redundant during the recession.''
Denis Staunton said the contribution of mature students to college life had been hugely positive: "We find that mature students are more likely to get first class honours degrees.
"They tend to be highly motivated and committed and they know what they want.''
Former train driver Owen Dineen blazed a trail for the mature when he was named earlier this year as UCC's Graduate of the Year.
Having retired from Irish Rail due to ill health in his late thirties, he enrolled for a Commerce degree. He graduated with a first class honours degree last year.
"I loved every minute of the course and when I eventually had to give up my student card on graduation I shed a tear.
"I think it is very important as a mature student to integrate with your classmates. You have to make concessions to their lifestyle.
"I was not going to go out every Thursday night because I have a family, but I signed on to Bebo and Facebook. That way I was able to keep up with their antics.''
Unemployed mature students may now be pouring into colleges, but the Government has chopped away part of their funding.
As a result of the budget new applicants for the Back to Education Allowance, the social welfare payment for mature students, will no longer be able to receive an additional student grant.
Michelle Mitchell, a 46-year-old student who is doing a preparatory course for entry to NUI Galway, says: "These cutbacks will hit mature students heavily. We will still get social welfare payments but there are still extra costs associated with going to college such as books, transport and childcare.''