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I am returning to study as an undergraduate

Q: What is a "mature age" student or "non-school leaver"?

A: Most institutions classify non-school leavers as students who are entering tertiary study (a VET course or an undergraduate degree) from a background other than Year 12, such as those who take a year or two off after finishing school. Mature age students, on the other hand, are usually classified as those who are entering tertiary study and are 21 years or older. These classifications vary between tertiary providers according to their admissions policies, so it is best to discuss your individual circumstances with each institution. While "mature age" might not be the most flattering of terms, rest assured that it does apply to a large proportion of undergraduate students — it may even entitle you to special entry schemes, such as those that recognise work and life experience.

Q: Why should I return to study?

A: There are two main reasons why people return to study. The first is to upskill. Those who are upskilling return to undergraduate study in order to develop new skills and knowledge. Perhaps you want to upgrade your dental assistant qualifications to become a fully qualified dentist. Or complete a teaching degree to become a fully qualified teacher after working as a teacher's aide. It is also common to upskill by refining your focus in a broad field by completing postgraduate study in a specialist area — completing a postgraduate qualification in linguistics after a general arts degree, for example.

You can also return to study to change your career, whether slightly or completely. If you find that you're climbing a career ladder that isn't quite for you, tertiary study will help you switch to an alternate path. It is not uncommon for people who have been working in one field for half their life to try something drastically different. Maybe you're a lawyer wanting to complete a VET course in hospitality to open your own restaurant? Or a bricklayer who has laid one too many bricks and is looking to break into social work. See Study options for more information about the types of courses on offer.

Q: What is the difference between university, TAFE and private providers?

A: The main difference between these three types of providers is found in the qualifications they offer and the style of teaching they provide. For example, while universities typically offer higher education qualifications (bachelor degrees, graduate certificates, graduate diplomas, masters degrees and doctorates), TAFE institutes specialise in Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses (certificates, diplomas and advanced diplomas). In the private sector, you will find both private VET providers and private higher education providers.

In terms of teaching, you will see that universities tend to offer a more academic style of teaching, while TAFEs offer a much more hands-on, practical style. Universities are also required to complete research, whereas TAFE institutes and private providers are not. There is, however, some overlap. For example, while TAFE institutes are known for offering practical VET courses, many now offer bachelor degrees in complementary fields (usually with a vocational spin). Likewise, there are five dual-sector universities (four in Victoria and one in the Northern Territory) that have both TAFE and higher education divisions. See Types of institutions for more information.

Q: How do I choose the right institution?

A: The reality is that no two institutions are the same, so choosing the right one can be tricky. If you're considering a popular course that seems to be offered just about everywhere, you'll find that the process is a little more involved than for someone considering a field with fewer institution options. Finding the right fit for you comes down to plenty of research (on this website, on institution websites and by getting in touch with student advisers and course coordinators). You should also ensure that you attend the open day of each institution you are considering. Open days allow you to get a feel for the institution and mean that you can chat with lecturers, tutors and even current students about the course you are considering. See our Open days page for a list of open day dates. If you're still struggling to make your decision, it can help to put together a list of "wants" and "needs" and use this to assess which institution suits you best. Perhaps you're looking for a small institution with an intimate feel or one with certain specialties? See Choosing an institution for more information.

Q: What if my course is offered at both VET and degree level? What is the difference?

A: The choice between a VET course and degree depends on both the field you are hoping to work in and the type of work you want to do. Generally, completing a degree will qualify you for more professional roles than those that can be entered using a VET qualification (which tend to lead to paraprofessional roles). For example, while a certificate in the accounting field may provide you entry into a position as an accounts assistant or bookkeeper, a degree will allow you to become an accountant. There are also some fields — such as architecture, dentistry and medicine — where a degree is the minimum requirement for professional practice. See Study options for more information about the various qualification levels and where they lead.

Q: Am I able to access tertiary study?

A: Many students worry that they cannot access tertiary study simply because they aren't fresh out of school, but this is far from the truth. In fact, institutions offer a range of alternative entry schemes to suit non-school leavers and mature age students. For example, you may be asked to submit a personal information form that details your work experience history and your motivations for entering tertiary study. Many institutions view work experience highly, and some consider it to be "equivalent" to an academic background. They may also use other selection methods to assess your readiness for tertiary study, such as interviews and aptitude tests. See Getting into a course for more information.

Q: Am I restricted in the courses I can enter?

A: You are not restricted in any way. Mature age students can access the same courses as school leavers, with no exceptions, although you may need to enter through a pathway depending on your academic history. In fact, you may actually be in a better position to enter some courses based on your work or life experience. See Getting into a course for more information.

Q: What if I didn't finish high school?

A: Although it depends on the course you are hoping to enter, it's very possible to enter tertiary study without having finished high school. Although some courses may be more difficult to enter than others, the best option is to get started on a pathway. For example, you may be able to complete a foundation studies course that leads into a VET or higher education course. You could also start out at VET level with a certificate course before proceeding to a diploma, then a degree. You will find that certificate I and II courses generally require Year 9 or 10 (some even specify "no qualifications"), meaning that they are accessible even if you didn't finish school. Most institutions will also happily recognise any relevant work experience you've had since leaving school, which may be used in place of Year 12 completion when considering your application. See Getting into a course for more information.

Q: What if I started tertiary study years ago and never finished?

A: Although it's always best to check with institutions before applying, you might be able to receive some credit for the study you have completed if it was in a relevant field. See Getting into a course for more information.

Q: Are there alternative pathways for non-school leavers?

A: There are a range of alternative pathways into tertiary study for school leavers and non-school leavers alike. Pre-tertiary pathways such as bridging and foundation courses are offered by many institutions to provide you with the preparation you need for your course. You can also complete a tertiary pathway by climbing the qualifications ladder, beginning with a lower-level qualification and then working your way up from there. Your first port of call is your institution's academic adviser, who should be able to put a pathway together for you to get you to where you want to be. See Pathways into your course for more information.

Q: How do I apply?

A: There are two main application methods: direct applications and applications through Tertiary Admissions Centres (TACs). How you apply will depend on both the institution and the qualification level for which you are applying. Often non-school leaver and mature age applications are taken directly through the institution, although there are also many cases where you will need to apply through the TAC. It's best to contact your institution to discuss how you should apply. It's also important to look out for entry requirements, including additional requirements such as interviews and folio presentations (you may need to arrange these yourself!). See The tertiary application process for more information.

Q: How much does tertiary study cost and how do I pay for it?

A: The cost of tertiary study depends on the type of institution you choose, your level of study and the "place" you are offered. At the broadest level, this is the difference between paying full fees to your institution and paying lower fees that are subsidised by the government. There is also a range of loans that can help you. If you are studying at a provider approved by the federal government to offer Commonwealth assistance, you may be able to access a HELP loan to help cover part, or all, of your tuition fees until you are earning a certain income. Note that not all education providers are approved to offer HELP loans (while this includes all universities and TAFE institutes, some private providers are excluded). You will also find that there are other costs attached to tertiary study, whether this includes some of the extra costs associated with your studies (textbooks, computer equipment and stationery) or those associated with living away from home. See Funding your education for more information.

Q: Am I eligible for scholarships or government assistance?

A: Luckily, there are a number of financial assistance options out there to help support students through their studies. This includes both scholarships (whether from the federal government, your institution or a private organisation) and government allowances. Institution and private organisation scholarships come in all shapes and sizes, and are generally divided into two categories: academic and equity. Federal government scholarships are provided by the Commonwealth Scholarships Program and include the Student Start-Up Scholarship and the Relocation Scholarship, which are paid to students receiving certain Centrelink payments. From January 1 2014, the Student Start-Up Scholarship will become an income-contingent loan. You may also be eligible for government assistance in the form of Youth Allowance, Austudy, ABSTUDY or Rent Assistance. See Scholarships and financial assistance for details of your options and to see what you are eligible for.

Q: Can I continue to work while I study?

A: Many students continue to work while they study, either choosing to complete their work part time while studying full time or continuing full-time work while studying part time. The option you choose really depends on your circumstances (such as your financial situation) and how your course is structured. For example, you may need to study full time if your course doesn't have a part-time option or if the specialisation you are interested in isnt offered through evening classes. There is also a range of other flexible study options available to help you fit study around work. See Flexible study options for more information. Of course, there is always the option to make flexible arrangements with your employer — if they're willing to help you out.

Q: Will I be surrounded by teenagers?

A: As much as it may feel like it's the case, no! In fact, most courses have large numbers of mature age students within the cohort — whether they've spent three or four years away from study or even several decades! There are also some fields that tend to have larger numbers of older students simply because they are fields that few students consider straight out of school. Education and training, languages, medicine, nursing, paralegal studies, social work, and tourism and hospitality are all fields where less than half of students are school leavers, meaning that the majority have had some time off before beginning their studies.

Q: How do I fit study into my already busy life?

A: These days, institutions recognise the need for flexibility and offer more and more options to ensure that students can manage their studies, no matter how many commitments they have on their plate. This is especially the case if you are returning to study and have to balance it with work and family commitments. As you research your course options, be sure to look out for flexible options such as part-time study, online and distance education, evening classes, trimester or term calendars, block study and mixed-mode study. Most courses will offer at least a few of these options, meaning that you can tailor your study schedule to suit your needs. See Flexible study options for more information.

Q: What is student life like for a non-school leaver?

A: Although there will be slight differences in student experience between fresh-faced school leavers and older students, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Many students who begin study a little later in life find that they are in a better frame of mind to begin their course than younger students — after all, they're "older and wiser", as the saying goes. As for student life, this all depends on your circumstances. For example, some students choose to continue to work full time and undertake part-time study, while others choose to delve into a full-time course. Of course, everything else that comes with being a student (extracurricular activities, faculty balls and so on) has nothing to do with the type of student you are and is just a matter of getting involved! While non-school leavers may not be heading off into on-campus accommodation and getting completely immersed in student life, they still have all the same opportunities to get involved as much as they choose. The only thing to stop them is their commitments outside of tertiary study, which may be much greater than those of school leavers. See Student life for more information.

Q: How do I adjust to tertiary study?

A: Adjusting to tertiary study can seem like a lot of effort, but it's really all about embracing change and managing some of the challenges that come your way. This might mean making some little changes to your lifestyle (including your social and work schedules) or just working out a way to deal with handing your free time over to assignments and exams. There are also a number of things you can do to ease your way into your studies, such as attending all the orientation sessions you see advertised around campus and seeking out help from student advisers when the need arises. See Adjusting to study for more information.

Q: What if I need to relocate to study?

A: As you trawl through your course options, it's possible that you'll need to relocate to pursue your field of study — whether this is to another state or within your state. You may find that a certain course is only offered in one area or that it is better executed outside of your home state (such as mining engineering in Western Australia or fashion in Melbourne or Sydney), or you may even just need a bit of a change. See Study destinations for more information about living and studying in Australia's different states or territories. If you need help deciding on an accommodation option, it's worth checking out the Student accommodation section too.

Q: Is tertiary study worth it?

A: The "worth" of tertiary study is very subjective — after all, everyone has different expectations and a different idea of what they would like to do at the completion of their studies. This being said, tertiary study is certainly a huge contributing factor to finding employment in your field (and in some fields, the most important factor). Visit the Ratings section to see how graduates of your field rated their experience, including their outcomes beyond graduation. For an overview of graduate outcomes among students from all course levels, see Graduate outcomes .

Q: Can I study overseas?

A: If you are considering studying overseas during your course, you have a number of options: completing a student exchange; undertaking a study abroad program; completing some of your study at one of your institution's overseas campuses (if available); going on a study tour; completing an overseas internship or research experience; or selecting a course with an international focus that includes overseas study as part of its course structure. Studying overseas during your course is a great way to broaden your horizons and add an international flavour to your student experience, so it's worth looking into overseas study options when you first begin researching courses. See Study abroad and student exchange for more information about each option.

Q: Is online and distance study an option?

A: Online and distance education is becoming more and more popular among students seeking a flexible option. Most institutions offer at least some of their courses in online or distance modes, while others are specialists in the field and allow you to complete just about any course without setting foot on campus. All course materials are delivered by post or email, meaning that you can study wherever and whenever you want — whether it's from the comfort of your couch, the local café or during an overseas holiday. See Online and distance education for more information.

Q: What if I start my course and then decide I don't like it?

A: Changing direction is more common than you may think! Even if you had your heart set on a certain course, there's no way to know what it's really like until you are actually studying in it. If you begin a course and realise that it's not quite the right fit, you have the option of making some changes to your enrolment. This includes changing your subjects, changing your course or institution, or, if you've thought your options through carefully, leaving your studies all together. The most important thing to remember is that you always have the option of making adjustments, so long as you've considered the implications (such as being liable for course fees or making amendments that affect core learning areas within your course). See Changing direction for more information.

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