James Mitchell

Old man about town JAMES MITCHELL kicks off his brand new column.

The expression “mature student” is one of those contradictory phrases – like “Microsoft Works”, soy milk or Liberal Democrat – which is bound to lead to confusion and disappointment.

When I first turned up to interview at one of the more established colleges just under two years ago, there were no discernible age differences between the other candidates and myself. I probably even looked younger than a fair few of them.

Unfortunately, the tree trunk of my soul exposed me for the twenty-something that I was, flagging up my 80s birth certificate and poor life choices. I was swiftly dubbed far too mature to cohort with the younger, fresh-faced undergrads and sent to interview at one of the less prestigious colleges – whether it was the tweed jacket or the pipe that gave me away, I’ll never know.

The staff at Wolfson College were sympathetic, and were quick to give me a guided tour of the facilities and supply me with some useful literature. In hindsight, it was a bit like being shown round a retirement home. It is perhaps a testament to just how irrelevant Wolfson is regarded, that we are mocked less than, say, Lucy Cavendish or Homerton.

Thankfully, it is a prerequisite of most jibes that some recognition of the subject is needed. It has (literally) paid dividends for Wolfson to escape the public consciousness in other ways as well. I was watching the day-time TV show “Pointless” a few months back (in which the aim is to come up with an answer no one else has thought or heard of), and the category for the jackpot was “Cambridge Colleges”.

In that instance, Wolfson would have landed the contestants twenty-odd grand. Unfortunately for them, they hadn’t heard of us either. Cabbies still insist on pronouncing the college “Wolfston”, although they seem to have no trouble finding it – presumably because we’re all a bunch of geriatrics who lack sufficient stamina to make the short trip back from town.

When I first arrived at Cambridge, the senior tutor at Wolfson sat us all down and presented us with a surprising statistic – that mature undergraduates are less likely to attain a “good degree” than our younger, more dutiful peers. Perhaps it’s because our small dose of life experience has rendered us immune to the criticism and disapproval of our supervisors (many of whom are around our age, or even younger) so that the threat of deadlines and sanctions is treated with a casual disregard.

Or, perhaps more likely, because the same habitual laziness that made us apply to university five or more years later than everyone else has made it difficult to keep up with the mean work rate. But to characterize all mature undergrads as such obscures the truth. Some have quite incredible and even humbling life stories, and have fought against the odds to win their place here.

But it does make it harder to bond with some of the younger undergraduates. My friendship circle is not based on the people who live on my corridor or sit on my course. Rather, the people closest to me make up a cocktail of PhD, MPhil and Masters’ students – with a few fellow undergraduates thrown in for good measure. So the purpose of this column is to attempt to show Cambridge from the perspective of the older student. Over a third of all Cambridge students are postgrads or mature, so it seems appropriate to readdress the journalistic balance.

I hope you can forgive the intrusion – we’re not dead yet!

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