New tricks for old dogs

September 18, 1998

People are living longer, and they want to learn. Phil Baty looks at the boom in Third Age education

Over the next 30 years, the number of pensioners in the United Kingdom will increase by more than 50 per cent. Those aged 65 and over now make up about 16 per cent of the total UK population. This will increase to almost a quarter by about 2025.

As average life expectancy continues its dramatic rise - from 69 for men in 1994 to 73 today - pensioners can look forward to a longer and healthier "Third Age" after full-time employment, when they no longer have dependants and have a lot of time on their hands. They also have money. The 18 million people over 50 account for an estimated 70 per cent of the nation's disposable wealth. Many of these people are going to want to get back into education.

"There are going to be so many of us," said Mari Hardie, national spokeswoman for the University of the Third Age, a voluntary, community-based movement in which local pensioners come together for informal learning and leisure. "Just 20 or 30 years ago people were so worn out physically that there was not much of a third age. Now we retire in our 50s and go on being active until we are 91."

The University of the Third Age movement, or more snappily named U3A by its members, was set up in 1981 by four academics, including Peter Laslett, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. On its first day the U3A had 40 members. This rose to 400 in the first month. Now it has 80,000 members, based in 368 local groups, and the movement is growing at 1,000 members a month.

A similar informal learning group, but more of a commercial set-up, called Agepower, is also expecting huge growth in the third-age sector. Set up by Weight Watchers founder Bernice Weston in 1987 and relaunched this year, Agepower has confidently predicted that the business will be worth Pounds 25 million by 2001, with hundreds of thousands of members.

At the U3As, about 150 kinds of activity are available. The most popular courses are in information technology, languages, art and creative writing. "Some at first do not want to be taught formally," Ms Hardie said. "But many of our members are former teachers or experts in their chosen fields. Each member can teach something, and each member can learn." Ms Hardie said that for many the introduction to learning, after a lifetime without, ignites a new enthusiasm, and stimulates the demand for formal learning. "We are getting closer to higher and further education," she said.

But despite the success of the U3A, participation by older people in learning is still low. In its response to the government's lifelong learning green paper, The Learning Age, adult learners organisation NIACE said that only one in four of 55 to 64-year-olds had engaged in any learning programmes in the past three years, and only one in five of the over-65s had.

The picture does appear to be shifting. The Higher Education Funding Council last year reported to the Dearing inquiry that the over-60s had become more likely to enter post-school education than those aged 25 to 56. HEFCE found that 33,000 people over 60 are taking some form of higher or further education course. But that is a small proportion of an estimated 15 million over-60s.

Despite the government's moves towards "age-blind" widening participation, NIACE's older and bolder advisory group has warned in its response to the green paper: "Lifelong learning is not yet a real opportunity for most older people."

For the older and bolder group, the answer is simple: there needs to be more public investment in learning for older people. The group has asked for increased government funding for local authorities' adult education provision, and has recommended that older people are targeted by the University for Industry. "The Older and Bolder advisory group commends the practice of the Swedish and Norwegian governments in making entitlements available to all ages, and recommends that access to loans, fee remission and grants should be available to all on the basis of need, not on grounds of age," it says. It also wants equal funding for part-time and full-time study.

The group has welcomed the extension of loans for higher education for those up to the age of 55, but "it is not enough", it said.

Older and Bolder coordinator, Jim Soulsby, believes the government has fallen for the myth that it is not economically sound to invest in pensioners whose working lives are over. "There is evidence that participation in learning plays a part in reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, and more general evidence that learning prolongs active life and delays dependency," he said.

The group has demanded that the departments of Health, Education and Employment and Culture, Media and Sport collaborate to commission studies to measure the economic impact of investment in the education of older people. The Treasury might just get a surprise, Mr Soulsby said.

FROM SHAKESPEARE TO SCRABBLE

There is a growing waiting list for membership of the Wirral's University of the Third Age. The group has 200 members, but its size is restricted by the fire regulations at its fortnightly meeting place, the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead.

The group's founder, 83-year-old Moreford Addimson, has already had to set up four spin-off groups in the Wirral area, and she is considering another. "The groups have been growing like nobody's business," she said.

Ms Addimson, who did not go to school until she was 12, became involved in the U3A projects when her husband died almost ten years ago. "I did not know anything then, and now I give public lectures and run two history classes a week from my home," she said.

For a subscription fee of just Pounds 7 a year - and 50p per meeting to cover tea and biscuits - the Wirral group offers anyone who has retired from gainful employment informal weekly courses in just about anything - art, history, martial arts, music, psychology, yoga, Shakespeare and Scrabble.

Veronica Dowell, the group's "registrar", said the philosophy is to "try to teach anything that the members want". And with the combined knowledge of about 12,000 years of life experience among the members, they can usually arrange teachers from within the group.

The wider social benefits of the group are important, Ms Dowell said. "Sometimes the local council's social services ask us about admitting people," she said. "It is surprising how people blossom. We get a lot of widowers. They are a little helpless to begin with, but they soon find their feet and make friends. It can be a lifesaver."

Indeed, the group was almost literally a lifesaver for Ms Addimson. "I was suicidal when my husband dropped dead," she said. "I have learnt so much since back then when I was 77. A lot of our members are taking Open University degrees. It lights you up. I am having the time of my life."

Richard Smith, 83, has become an expert in art history since his retirement 20 years ago. He is to give a lecture series on the Pre-Raphaelites.

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