Freelance Journalist

May 23, 2024 (Updated )

As I rode the Eurostar back from Paris with my family, having just received my acceptance into London Metropolitan University, I knew pursuing journalism at 40 would be tough. Dealing with new tech was one thing, but coping with the constraints of Universal Credit and the demands of our first baby was a hurdle I never anticipated.

The journey for early-career journalists can be thrilling, but finding time for assignments and work placements as a mature student proved an even greater challenge than I could ever have predicted. Imagine juggling a part-time job, caring for your loved ones, and trying to improve your skills — all while facing problems nobody seems to talk about.

Being a single parent, stifled financially, or sharing a house with strangers can all add extra pressure, as can not speaking the native language, or being older than most of your class. You may feel isolated and struggle with self-confidence. You might worry about how others see you or face discrimination from peers.

‘I Cry And Ask Myself How Am I Going To Do That’

Mirna Okogo is a 28-year-old journalism, film, and television student at London Metropolitan University and a mother of two. As a second-year student, Mirna juggles the demands of her coursework with the responsibilities of raising her children — meaning she only has one day off a week.

The pressure can be overwhelming. “I cry when I have to do assignments,” she admits. “I cry when I see the due dates and ask myself: ‘How am I going to do that?’”

Mirna says universities should be more understanding of the unique challenges faced by mature students, particularly those with families. “It would be easier if we could study and work in the same place,” she says, suggesting making more job opportunities available on campus and reducing the number of assignments required for each module.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Mirna Okogo, a student at London Metropolitan University (L). and Lucy Dyer, the editorial development manager at News Associates (R)

Despite the difficulties, Mirna remains determined to pursue her passion for journalism — but she’s not the only one struggling. Data from the House of Commons shows 254,000 mature students — anyone over the age of 21 — started an undergraduate course in 2019/20. Compared to younger students, they are almost twice as likely to drop out of their course and are less likely to graduate with first or upper-second-class honours.

The briefing also notes that mature students receive the same level of funding as younger students, despite many having increased financial responsibilities. For many students I spoke to, the financial burden was a significant concern, especially for those coming from outside the UK, who can’t access government loans and grants.

‘It’s Hard To Live Pay Cheque To Pay Cheque’

It’s something Lusiana Avalos, a 24-year-old journalism student and Swiss national, worries about often: “For me, I think it was the fees. Because I cannot take out a loan here. And I couldn’t take out a loan in Switzerland either, because I am abroad. So, my parents and I had to pay this all by ourselves, out of pocket. No loans! And my parents only work part-time.”

In some cases, international students like Lusiana may receive scholarships or bursaries to help with their fees, however, these vary between institutions. While Lusiana does receive a discount on her fees to match the rates paid by UK students, she still finds it a struggle to make ends meet. “I can only work twenty hours a week [due to immigration law], so [employers don’t] want to take me. So, it’s very hard to live pay cheque to pay cheque on a daily basis.”

Instead, she’s turned to ad-hoc work, such as babysitting. She adds: “I want to cry! Every time I talk about it, every time I think about it, I get stressed. It just makes me throw up. It’s really bad.” Coupled with the challenges of navigating an unfamiliar educational system and culture, often without a support system, it can be an incredibly alienating and lonely experience. Lusiana adds: “When my flatmates are not here, I am alone.”

Amelia Tait, 31, is a journalist who has written for The Guardian, Wired, The New Statesman, and The New York Times. She studied her NCTJ qualification as a full-time fast-track course at the age of 21 and recalls the pressure of juggling multiple jobs in order to save money for her studies.

“I simultaneously worked three jobs for six months: in the morning I worked in a hospital admin department; in the afternoon I worked in the same hospital’s catering department; and in the evening I worked in a steak restaurant. Some Saturday mornings I also cleaned that restaurant, so I like to call it four jobs when I’m feeling particularly Dickensian,” says Amelia.

Organisations That Offer Financial Support To Journalists

• The Journalism Diversity Fund awards bursaries four times per year in line with key NCTJ course dates. You can reapply if unsuccessful and the board provides feedback to those who aren’t selected.

• We don’t blow our own trumpet all that often, but we collate a big list of funding opportunities, including grants, scholarships, and hardship funds. It’s updated by our team every single week, so do check it out!

• The Journalist’s Charity runs two schemes. Their First Jobs Fund supports those at the start of their career with deposits, relocation, equipment, and other costs, while financial assistance supports those facing hardship.

• The Printing Charity runs an annual Rising Star Awards to support professional development for journalists. Anyone aged 30 and under can apply for grants of up to £1,500 to support cost courses, professional memberships, equipment, and more.

• Individual universities and courses also offer specific hardship funds and scholarships, although the support will vary from institution to institution. It’s always worth reaching out to see what kind of support is on offer, even if you can’t immediately see it on the website.

“The course itself was affordable but I needed to save money for my living costs. I was able to save all the money from my three jobs because I was living at home up north at the time, which I was lucky to be able to do,” says Amelia, who studied her NCTJ at London’s Lambeth College. “I then quit my jobs so I could start studying full time — the course was the fast track one so I think it was about six months’ long.”

It’s clear that both international and mature students need tailored support — but are universities and course providers doing enough? And where can students turn for help?

Lucy Dyer is the editorial development manager at News Associates, which provides a range of NCTJ Diploma courses, including some offered part-time and remotely. Acknowledging that many students will have a range of personal circumstances and responsibilities, she says: “We try to be as flexible as possible to the needs of our students and to make sure that they don’t feel stressed by the course, but they feel supported by the students that they have.”

The First Step Is Asking For Help

The first step for any student who finds themselves struggling is to ask for help in the first place; most universities have dedicated resources and staff members to guide students through the process of applying for bursaries and settling into an academic environment. Often, information about the support available will be listed on the university website or intranet —it’s always worth doing your research to see what you could take advantage of.

The same process of research applies to seeking out external funding options as well, such as scholarships, bursaries, and grants. For example, Lucy points to the Journalism Diversity Fund as “an excellent resource for students who need financial assistance”. Journo Resources also collates a weekly updated list of funding opportunities and organisations like the Journalists’ Charity have specific schemes for those just starting out or facing hardship.

And, for those who are yet to commence their studies, it’s also worth evaluating if university study is the right option for them. For example, applying for on-the-job apprenticeships or studying NCTJ qualifications part-time and remotely might offer a more flexible and cost-effective approach. “I do think that NCTJs are really good, fast, and relatively affordable options,” says Amelia.

However, support needs to go further than just finances — and it needs to be baked into courses themselves. For News Associates, this means encouraging a collaborative and social environment for everyone on their courses. “We encourage people to work collaboratively and we encourage people to socialise,” explains Lucy. The goal is to help create a support network for students as they continue in their careers.

Journo Resources
"I can only work twenty hours a week [due to immigration law], so [employers don’t] want to take me. So, it's very hard to live paycheck to paycheck on a daily basis. Every time I think about it, I get stressed."
Lusiana Avalos, journalism student

Most universities offer some kind of pastoral support. For example, London Metropolitan University offers a mentoring programme to mature students about to begin their studies and Birbeck offers its teaching online and in the evenings. But the picture across the UK is uneven and varies at each institution — challenges faced by mature and international journalism students are multifaceted and require comprehensive solutions.

We need to see increased flexibility around mitigating circumstances, better mental health support, more flexible learning options, and better-resourced hardship funds. Journalism schools should also help learners in securing paid placements as part of their study. If a course requires work experience, universities should partner with businesses so learners can receive payment, as well as ensure remote and flexible opportunities for those with access needs or other commitments.

Yet while universities and other educational providers play a significant role in supporting students, there are other factors at play for both mature and international students. Government policies, for example, currently prohibit international students from working more than 20 hours per week, while the 30 hours a week of free childcare support is only offered to parents who are working — not those who are studying. To properly support the needs of international and mature students, we need policies like these changed and investment in funding for those students.

It is crucial to recognise and address the unique challenges faced by students with additional responsibilities and accessibility issues — and it’s a responsibility for all of us. Together, we must forge an educational landscape that not only embraces diversity but uplifts people who dare to pursue knowledge at all odds. Only then can we cultivate an environment that nurtures success for all, regardless of age, origin, or any circumstance.

In the meantime, I am near the end of the second year of my degree. My financial struggles persist, leaving me anxiously awaiting the next grant or Universal Credit payment. Fatherhood and husband duties continue to add layers of complexity to my journey, yet my passion for journalism remains unwavering. Despite the challenges, I’m successfully navigating through my studies, drawing inspiration from others who have faced similar obstacles. I am determined to complete this journey and pursue journalism to create a meaningful impact on the world around me.

Eddie Kämpgen
Eddie Kämpgen

Eddie Kämpgen is a second-year Journalism BA (Hons) student at London Metropolitan University, where he held the position of sports editor for the Holloway Express. With experience as an intern at Journo Resources, his persistent drive and commitment to broadcast journalism has recently led to being selected to cover the upcoming General Election with the Sky News team.