"University’s the best thing we’ve ever done!” - mature students’ message to those considering a career change


Life is taking a new direction for mature students Zoe Lyons and Ed Merlin Murray, who have successfully achieved University of Cumbria degrees. 

Members of its Class of 2020, both Zoe and Ed joined University of Cumbria as first-time undergraduates two decades after their schooldays had ended. 

Today father-of-four Ed Merlin Murray, who lives near Hexham in Northumberland, and Zoe Lyons, of Dumfries in south west Scotland, are celebrating degrees from the university’s Institute of the Arts. 

Ed, 37, has a first-class BA (Hons) Illustration degree after juggling his studies with family commitments and freelance commissions for clients such as Atlantic Records.  Recently he was named by a panel of design and advertising industry figures in the 2020 D&AD New Blood Festival as ‘One to Watch’ and this month his second book, ‘Chaos/Pattern’, is published by Unseen Sketchbooks. 

Five years ago it was very different. Ed’s career as a piano teacher in Hong Kong came to an end in a crash on a bike track which left one of his hands in a cast for months. 

Ed, who grew up in Fife, Scotland, and describes his time at school as ‘chequered’, said: “University has been the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve absolutely loved the whole journey I’ve been on whilst at Cumbria, where the facilities, workshops and teaching staff are highlights and since the middle of my second year I’ve had non-stop freelance work. 

“Some of that work has been in animation. Whilst my course has been illustration, University of Cumbria is where I’ve been introduced to animation. I wouldn’t be able to do animation now if it wasn’t for Cumbria, nor would I have had the professional opportunities.” 

Work on Ed’s third book has begun and he intends to focus on his professional work and hasn’t ruled out a return to postgraduate study. 

Zoe Lyons, who has completed the BA (Hons) Photography degree, is focusing on teaching opportunities and developing her lifestyle photography business further. 

Capturing childhood images of her son Scott while he was growing up sparked Zoe’s interest in photography and, in 2014, she started a course at her local further education college. 

Zoe, now 38, said: “I never thought I was good enough to get a degree. I’d been in foster care when I was younger and that affected my early adulthood. I went to college later simply because I wanted to learn more about my hobby. 

“I started taking my photography more seriously when Scott was about 14 and decided it was time to try and do something for myself. I got hooked and kept learning, and by going to college and university I’ve seen the quality of my work improve phenomenally.” 

Zoe, who lives with fibromyalgia, added: “Within my first few weeks at university I received a care leaver’s grant.  I didn’t know things like that were even available. I really appreciated that; it has been the university team being so supportive. If there was ever a time when I didn’t know what to do there was always a person who was there to help.   

“My condition means there can be flare-ups and I sometimes have to use crutches. Through one of my projects I couldn’t really pick up my camera, so I was often looking for different ways of working and had support.” 

Commenting on her degree success, Zoe said: “It still doesn’t feel real. I’ve achieved everything and far more than I ever thought possible.  

“Scott’s really proud of me. He’s 19 and struggled with school, but he’s told me that I've done is spurring him on to try harder and he wants to make me as proud of him as he is of me.” 

Work by Zoe and Ed and more than 120 final-year students at the university’s Institute of the Arts can be seen online in their first fully digital showcase at

Mature students, those aged 21 and over, make up more than half of the student body at University of Cumbria, which plays a crucial role in training and supporting key workers of the future across the areas of health, education, the arts, business and industry, and science, natural resources and outdoor studies. 

If you are looking for a career change, are looking for a course, still need to apply for a place, or have changed your mind about the course you’ve chosen, the university’s Clearing hotline is now open. It is available by calling 0808 178 7373 or online at



University of Cumbria Class of 2020 BA (Hons) Illustration graduate Ed Merlin Murray in his studio


University of Cumbria Class of 2020 BA (Hons) Photography graduate Zoe Lyons with her son Scott