It's a filthy winter night, but everyone has turned up for their evening class in room A231 at the famous CityLit institute in central London. The too-bright fluorescent glow of the lights is reminiscent of school, but the atmosphere is different. It's not just the diversity of backgrounds - this is an access to higher education class, for people who want to study at university but don't have the formal education for it.
What has drawn them back to study now? Julissa Lacey is more motivated now that she is older. "I felt before that I had to learn; I feel now that I want to learn," she says.
Some want to change direction. "My brain is dying. I want to teach, and for that I need a degree," says Kerri Alder, who likes the fact that the course is more structured than at school. "We weren't taught study skills then. There was the expectation that you just understood these things."
Another difference is that to study on one of the evening courses you have to pay a small fee, in this case pounds 300 for the access course. Ms Alder acknowledges that the fear of wasting money motivates her. "I might drop out if it was free," she says.
Another student, Brad Austin, comments: "It means you're more ready to hold the teaching staff to account."
At my next port of call, an Visual Basic course for applications in Excel at City University in Angel, Islington, north London, most students are here to develop their careers and the room is filled with the intense silence of furrowed-brow concentration. Ray Hickey is an investment banker. "As I'm paying for the whole thing myself, there's an incentive to get as much out of it as I can," he says. "If it was a compulsory course I might go through the motions, but this way I'm more appreciative."
Down the road in Blackfriars, at the sports massage course run by CityLit, the room is filled with half-naked students stretched out on tables. The hands-on approach is a welcome relief to the students. "At school they drummed information into us," says Mark Miller, a performing arts graduate. "Here it's very different. The practical …