At 43, Louise Brinkmann never expected to be stuffing text books into a bag for her first day of class.
Or discovering that no one even takes books to university these days.
The St Kilda resident is one of a growing breed of adult learners, diving into a brave new world of tertiary study where students are half her age and lectures theatres are virtually empty.
The numbers of full-time students aged 25 and over at Victorian universities and colleges swelled from 41,000 in 2011 to more than 63,000 in 2016, with 5000 more filling the part-time ranks, Australian Bureau of Statistics show.
Amid increasing instability in the job market, the trend has been driven by the uncapping of university places from 2009, the rise of online courses and flexible study options, according to experts.
For Brinkmann, a long-held desire to become a doctor still burned bright as she hit 40.
In a sign of perseverance, she sat the Graduate Medical School Admissions Test three times before being accepted into a Doctor of Medicine at Flinders University, shelving a 20-year career as a graphic designer to follow her dream.
“As I’ve gotten older I’ve realised you really can do anything you set your mind to,” says Brinkmann, now 44.
“I love learning, and medicine is a commitment to a lifetime of learning. People are shocked when they find out I’ve just started a medical degree, and say ‘Wow, amazing, I wish I could do that!’
“I always say – ‘You can do anything you want, if you work hard enough’.”
One of the biggest surprises has been the way technology has transformed university life since she first step foot through the doors two decades ago.
She often sits in lecture theatres with just a handful of students, most of whom are older, while the younger students will stay home and watch from their screens.
“I like to have that interaction in front of the lecturer,” she says.
“And you are there, showing up for a speaker who has taken the time out of their schedule to deliver the lecture in person.”
Returning to life on a shoestring has been another challenge, as has learning modern study methods with most resources now online.
She says the older cohort stick together and debrief over an occasional wine in the uni bar, but adult learners would like more support from the university.
“Learning how to learn again has been the biggest thing,” she says.
“Like how to study for tests and take notes in online environment, not just off blackboard … it’s been a real transition. I’ve often been flying blind and asking the younger students where to find all the resources online, navigate where to find notes, the study schedule — all of that.”
She says younger students have been welcoming and helpful, and she’s forged lifelong friendships with students in their 20s.
In Victoria, analysis by Good Education Group has found Swinburne University experienced the biggest uptick in public university enrolments of non-school leavers, from about 2000 in 2010 to 7000 in 2016.
The figures reflect students who have taken a gap year, enrolled after earning a professional qualification, a VET award course, an existing higher education course or through criteria like auditions and interviews.
Head of Product Ross White says Australia’s prestigious “Group of Eight” universities – which includes The University of Melbourne and Monash University – tend not to attract as many adult learners, as they don’t chase this market.
“Even though the ‘brand name’ universities are quite large, they will be almost exclusively school leavers,” he says.
“But places like Swinburne are market leaders in mature age students and will have a broader range of offerings. Others will be teasing out a point of difference.”
Mr White says adult learners often have families, have one career behind them or are working full-time or part-time.
Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson says an unprecedented number of Australians have been able to go to university after the Federal Government introduced an uncapped system of student places.
“Not only did it open the doors to university for thousands of mature age students, but 60,000 more people from poorer backgrounds were able to access the life-changing opportunity of a university degree,” she says.
But the peak body for universities has raised concerns the Federal Government’s $2.1 billion university funding freeze in 2018 and 2019 has put “these incredible gains at risk”.
Louise says it’s been beneficial from both a personal and professional sense, and can’t wait to embark on her new career in a few years.
And for those thinking they’ve left their run too late, consider the story of Dr David Bottomley.
The 94-year-old great-grandfather and Melbourne academic recently became the oldest Australian to graduate with a PhD, after studying a Doctor of Philosophy part-time at Perth’s Curtin University.
He told AAP his first feeling was one of “relief and utter numbness” – before wondering what he’s going to do with all his spare time.
This article originally appeared in the Herald Sun – Could you face going back to school? Here’s the mature age students succeeding at uni