By 2021 there will be 12 million people aged over 65 in the UK, matched by a corresponding decrease in the number of young people. In this light, the decision by the University of East Anglia's new medical school to enrol a 46-year-old student sends out an interesting signal.
It acknowledges that in an ageing society embarking on a new career should not be the preserve of the young. It acknowledges, too, that mature students have a lot to offer - particularly in a health service struggling to meet the needs of that society. And it brings a welcome flexibility to professional careers, where a rigid linear approach has historically disadvantaged women.
There are, of course, cost-benefit arguments about older students embarking on long periods of training. The UEA student will be 52 before she can fully register with the General Medical Council. However, although her postgraduate training will continue after that, she will still be in work, providing clinical care. The requirement to retire at 65 in these days of diminishing pension funds is increasingly obsolete. It is a waste of skills and experience to force people out of the workforce at an arbitrary age. By 2021 it will be unaffordable.
While successive governments have legislated against discrimination by gender, religion, race and disability, older people will have to wait until 2006 before it becomes illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of age. In the meantime, it is important for universities to lead the way.