Jessica Winch explains the rule that means pensioners can take out a loan to cover tuition fees but never have to pay it back .
Christine Armstrong went to university when she was 63 years old. Three years later, she holds a BA in English from Oxford University and is now completing a Master’s degree.
Like many undergraduates, Mrs Armstrong was granted a student loan to cover her tuition fees during her degree, as well as a maintenance grant and a bursary from Oxford.
But unlike most of her younger contemporaries, she is not required to pay her student loan back, as her pension does not exceed the threshold beyond which repayments are required.
The recent change in the student fees system could make this a possibility for many more pensioners interested in a university education. Under the new system, people don’t have to repay a student loan if they earn less than £21,000 a year. This threshold will rise in April 2017, in line with average earnings.
Research from Prudential showed that those entering retirement this year expected an average income of £15,300 a year well below the loan repayment threshold.
So could a student loan be the ultimate freebie for pensioners? There is no age limit on tuition fee loans of up to £9,000, which apply if you are studying full or part-time and are paid directly to your university or college.
To apply for a maintenance loan, which covers living costs, you must be a full-time UK student aged under 60 on the first day of your course.
However, there is the option of a maintenance grant, which does not need to be repaid, regardless of age as long as you are a full-time UK student. The maximum grant payable is £3,250 (£3,354 from September this year).
You may not be eligible for a student loan if you already have a higher-level qualification.
Nichola Malton, an assessment manager at the Student Loans Company, said: “If a student has an equivalent or higher-level qualification already then they may not be entitled to any tuition fee loan support for their new course from Student Finance England.
“There are some exceptions in the previous study rules set by the Government, so it is important that the student looks into what tuition fee support is available to them depending on their circumstances and the course they are intending to study.
“Once they apply to us for support we can give them a clearer decision.”
Mrs Armstrong completed a foundation certificate at Oxford’s continuing education department, which cut her degree down to two years instead of three.
She was accepted by Harris Manchester College, which takes only mature students.
“By then I had found out that 'mature’ meant aged 21 and over,” she said. “I lived in college for two years and enjoyed every minute of it. I never felt out of place; the youngsters were wonderful.”
She added: “I worked through the legal executive scheme to become a lawyer and I was a deputy district judge when I retired. But I never had a degree and I always felt the lack of it.
“The first question people ask is 'Where did you do your degree,’ no matter where you are in your career.”
She said: “The beauty of doing a degree in your sixties is you really want to do it. I didn’t want to give it up , so I applied to do a Masters in Literature and Arts, still affiliated with Harris Manchester.
“There is a lot of work involved, a lot of reading. When you’re 18 it may seem a chore, but by my age it is a great pleasure.”
As she lived in student accommodation, she was also entitled to council tax exemption on her house, which she left empty thanks to “very good neighbours who kept an eye on it”.
Other silver students are also gaining qualifications. Ian McDade started taking courses through the Open University when he was 34 years old. Now 68, he has completed two BAs, two BScs and a diploma in German.
“It started as self-education and has now become a hobby,” he said. “I initially started with a science course and then moved to my favourite subject, which is mathematics. For the past four years I’ve been studying statistics and probability.”
Mr McDade, who retired from the police force in 1994, paid for his further education with the Open University from his savings.
He said: “This is something I started, I enjoyed it, I liked the Open University system and it became a natural thing to think every year: 'Right, what am I going to do now.’
“I think people retiring from work find it a big culture shock. Some sort of study is always a consideration. And it’s better than gardening.”