In Britain and Ireland the term "mature students" is widely used to denote students who are 21 or older; the corresponding American term is "non-traditional students". Although the term "mature students" may conjur up a picture of people in their forties and fifties, this is potentially misleading. While it is true that undergraduates in their forties and fifties (and sixties and seventies) would be mature students (often successfully so), mature students are frequently younger than this, most being in their twenties and thirties.
Roughly speaking, mature students tend to fall into three categories. By far the largest group is constituted by people who for whatever reason did not enter into higher education at normal school-leaving age but now want to study for a degree; these are usually people in their twenties (or, less usually, early thirties). A second, smaller and usually slightly older group comprises people wishing to retrain for a change of career. A third, far smaller group is constituted by retired people seeking a new intellectual challenge. Like all generalizations, this classification does of course not necessarily fit every case. At Harris Manchester College (an Oxford College that takes only mature students), the average age of our student body is normally around thirty.
Cutting across this (probably over-neat) classification are students who already have a degree and who wish to study for a second BA. Since funding for a second undergraduate degree can be hard to come by, Harris Manchester offers a number of scholarships (worth £18,000 over the duration of the second BA course) for mature students who already have a good first degree. Harris Manchester College welcomes applications from all these different kinds of potential mature student.
The word "theology" comes from the Greek words θεος (God) and λογος (word), and so literally means "the study of God". As an undergraduate academic discipline Theology tends to be more the study of human thinking about God, in scripture, doctrine and tradition, although there is, of course, also both the need and the opportunity to think about how God should be spoken of today. Oxford degree courses in Theology (as in many other places) involve a good deal of critical reflection on the Christian tradition, with the opportunity of examining another major world religion as well.
Many people come to the study of Theology out of a religious interest, "faith seeking understanding". But you don't have to be a Christian (or any kind of religious believer) to do a Theology degree, and there are many other reasons why the subject can be both interesting and rewarding. Historically religion has played an enormous role in virtually every human culture, and in many places it continues to do so. Christianity has been hugely influential in the west, and is worth studying in order to obtain a deeper understanding of western history, art, literature, and music. Theology may no longer be the "queen of the sciences", but it is perhaps the capstone of the humanities, encompassing a challenging but fascinating range of skills and disciplines including literary analysis, language skills, historiography, critical thinking, social science, and elements of philosophy (particularly if one opts for the Joint Degree of Philosophy and Theology). The principal requirements for studying Theology are perhaps intellectual curiosity, an open mind, a willingness to engage critically with anything and everything, and a readiness to understand and appreciate opposing points of view. In a world in which religious intolerance often seems on the increase, the critical study of Theology can play an important role in promoting tolerance and understanding. It also has immense value as the study of how people have thought and continue to think about the spiritual dimension of human existence. It does, however, remain a rigorous, critical, academic discipline; it is not an exercise in thinking cosy thoughts about God, the Universe and Everything, nor is it designed to assist you in your quest to find Your Personal Place in the Spiritual Meaning of Life!
Only a minority of people who study Theology at Oxford (and elsewhere) do so as part of or with a view to ministerial training (although this is of course one excellent reason for doing a Theology degree). Some people may go on to become RE teachers (and Harris Manchester has excellent links with RE teachers through the Farmington Institute, but many more go on to a wide variety of careers. An Oxford degree in Theology provides a large number of transferable skills.
Most universities welcome application from mature students, and all Oxford Colleges will consider them (though not all colleges take theology students). That said, Harris Manchester College specializes in mature students (in a range of subjects including Theology), and offers a distinctive opportunity for them to study in a world-class university. Harris Manchester is a small, friendly college, used to the particular needs of mature students, and also used to considering mature student applications sympathetically, recognizing that many mature applicants will not fit the typical profile other colleges look for in their standard school-leaver candidates.
Mature applicants must, of course, be able to show that they have good academic potential (normally we look for people who appear capable of getting an upper second class degree or better). This will normally include having good A-levels, or else some equivalent academic qualification (which may be an Access Course, a professional qualifications, or some equivalent overseas qualification, amongst other things; the university's page on mature students also spells this out). That said, Harris Manchester welcomes applications of mature students of all ages (provided they will be over 21 at the start of their course) and nationalities. In our 2007 entry, for example, only one of our new Theology Students was English (with a conventional set of English qualifications); of the other five, one was Irish, one Romanian, one Finnish, and two were from the United States. This was perhaps an exceptional year, but it nevertheless illustrates the wide variety of backgrounds from which we welcome mature students to read theology.
Although Harris Manchester welcomes applications from all potential mature students, those wishing to study Theology as a second undergraduate degree ("second BA students") will be particularly interested to know that Harris Manchester can offer substantial scholarships to good second BA applicants; these are worth £9,000 a year (roughly covering the fees) if the second BA is done over two years, or £6,000 a year if it is done over three. There are, of course, all sorts of reasons why people may wish to study Theology as a second undergraduate degree: for example many American students completing a liberal arts BA in the USA find that doing two or three years more specialized study of Theology at Oxford fits in well with their educational goals; other students may find that Theology is an interest they have come to a little later in life, perhaps stimulated by issues raised in their first degree course.
There are many places where mature students can study Theology, and it may be that what would suit you best would be a part-time course through the Open University, or perhaps a course through Oxford University's Department of Continuing Education (or that of some other university near where you live); but if you're contemplating studying for a full-time residential degree in Theology as a mature student, then Harris Manchester College is one option you should seriously consider.
If you're interested in making an application you should look at the application web pages for Oxford University and for Harris Manchester College.
You may also like to download an Oxford University Prospectus and a Harris Manchester College Prospectus.
For details of the Theology courses available at Oxford you will want to see the Theology Faculty website.
If you're seriously considering making an application you'll want to know what details of likely costs and possible funding.
If you already have a degree and would like to study Theology but don't want to do a full second BA, you may instead like to consider applying for the postgraduate diploma, which can be completed in one year. Or you may be more interested in a master's course or other postgraduate qualification (Harris Manchester also welcomes applications for postgraduate degrees in Theology and a number of other subjects).
For another view of the admissions process at Harris Manchester, see the account on Mike Nicholson's blog (Mike Nicholson is the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Harris Manchester).
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