When you see a framed photo of a graduate clutching their scroll and wearing a mortarboard and gown, do you wish you had a degree? There is no need to feel like you’ve missed the boat – people of all ages can study at university and even with the challenges of Army life, you can still succeed. Jill Misson finds out more…
FOR those re-embarking on their educational careers, returning to the classroom does not come without its trials and tribulations.
From juggling lessons and coursework with a frantic home life to managing finances, the path to higher learning contains a number of substantial – but surmountable – challenges.
Fourth-year psychology student Grace Pasquale found that the main fear encountered ahead of starting her studies was that she wasn’t clever enough – a concern that proved unwarranted.
She explained: “It’s great to know that even after two children, more house moves than I care to count and breaks in employment, my brain does still work!”
Grace is one of more than 2,000 soldiers and spouses currently working towards degrees with the Open University (OU), a route recommended by Pam Barber, the organisation’s head of business development (Defence). She said: “Studying with the OU has two purposes: to advance your Service career and to prepare you for the fiercely-competitive civilian jobs market.”
Whether you are living in the UK or posted overseas, distance learning places education well within your reach as online resources can give you the flexibility to study at home.
“I have regular meetings with my supervisor via Skype and fly back to the UK at my own expense once a term,” said Elizabeth Earl, a PhD student with the University of Essex, on a posting in Dhekelia, Cyprus with her husband.
“I have loved engaging my mind and working towards a personal goal instead of having a two-year gap on my CV.”
Many universities have signed the Armed Forces Covenant, including Anglia Ruskin.
Suparna Ghose, principal consultant of degrees at work, said they understand how unpredictable Service life can be.
She explained: “Military students can intermit and re-join their course at a later date. Some have received a posting mid-course and been able to continue their studies.”
How to pay for it
If one concern about starting university is how to afford it, financial support is available. Mature students can apply for a loan from the UK government to cover tuition fees with no repayments until you graduate and start earning more than £21,000.
Soldiers can use Enhanced Learning Credits, while The Royal British Legion’s President’s Award offers two separate bursaries of up to £1,500 for non-commissioned ranks.
After campaigning by AFF, Service families are no longer excluded from taking advantage of student loans for distance learning degrees at British universities if they are not resident in the UK on the first day of the course.
“We are delighted with the decision,” said AFF Chief Executive Sara Baade. “We have worked hard to improve the employment and training prospects of Army spouses.”
If you’re a Foreign & Commonwealth family, you should apply for loans early in case of any visa issues. AFF’s F&C Specialist, Katherine Houlston explained: “If a spouse has ILR on the first day of the first year of the course and has lived in the UK for the previous three years then they should be able to access student finance.”
Students with additional needs can receive further funding. Catherine Brown, an OU psychology student with complex health conditions, receives a Disabled Student Allowance which helps to fund specialist equipment, study support and travel expenses. She said: “I know it’s daunting thinking about how you can juggle your health, family, work and Army life but it is possible and I’ve never looked back.”
Routes to higher education
Getting a place at university is not all about A levels. A spokesman for admissions service UCAS advises potential students “not to worry” if they don’t have the right qualifications, adding: “Just ask if you can meet the entry requirements in a different way including life and work experience or an access to higher education diploma.”
A recent report by Bath Spa University and the Forces in Mind Trust identified a poor take-up in access courses amongst Service leavers and spouses. Rachel Ayers brushed up her maths and English skills at an Army Education Centre then completed an access course before applying to Bournemouth University to study adult nursing.
“With four children and our extended family living six hours away it is a challenge but my husband has permission to work flexibly to help with childcare,” she told us. “Every day I feel excited about the future and having a career that I can transfer when we move.”
Rachel’s husband is due posting before her final year so she will have to rent locally.
AFF’s Housing Specialist Cat Calder explained that families can only retain their SFA to complete an educational course if the student timed the finish to coincide with the end date of their soldier’s assignment and they have then been short-toured (see page 43 of our digital issue).
Managing your workload
If you feel inspired to apply for university, what else should you consider? Jackie Rautenbach, a first year graphic design student with Arden University, admitted she found the workload overwhelming at first, but the introduction of a weekly study plan has helped.
She added: “Once my son goes to bed, I spend around three hours on coursework every other night. My husband is very proud – he even helps more round the house!
“I absolutely adore this course. Choose a subject you are passionate about to really motivate you,” she concluded.