Michael North explores a scheme that offers over-55s self-worth and a new lease of life
Embarking on an MA as you begin your 80th year may seem an unusual decision, but for Tony Carter it is the natural next step in his new life as a college student.
Carter completed the first pioneering "Ransackers" course for people over the age of 55 at Ruskin College, Oxford, last summer. He is now embarking on an MA in public history. "I've got the bug now," he says.
Ransacker students - the word Ransacker comes from the Gaelic for explore and research - spend a ten-week residential term at one of nine colleges around the country, including Plater and Ruskin colleges in Oxford, Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh and Coleg Harlech in Wales.
Students are taught to research in the liberal arts and to communicate their ideas in both written and spoken form. They have a personal tutor and are encouraged to attend lectures that interest them. Students are assessed on a single 5,000-word dissertation. Carter wrote about the Nazi attack on modern art from 1937, partly because one of his relatives was a Berlin war correspondent.
Having left school at 15 to work in the wool industry, Carter fitted the Ransacker criterion of someone who had not benefited from earlier formal education. Ransackers is supported by the Better Government for Older People Programme, which aims to offer older people the opportunity to develop their skills so that they can give something back to their community. Vi Hughes, vice-chairman of the scheme's steering group, gives the example of 78-year-old student Brenda Hardy. "She would not touch a computer when she came on the course. Now she is printing her own leaflets for a pensioners' organisation in her area."
Hughes, a former tutor at Ruskin, was inspired to start the scheme by her anger at the experience of her father, an uneducated man who discovered his talent for painting only in the last years of his life. She says:
"Ransackers releases the potential within (older) people. It is the first time many have been asked their opinion for years. It's a terrific boost in an ageist society."
Carter agrees that it helps boost students' self-esteem: "It gives people a new interest, or excites a latent one, and it very much enhances their sense of self-worth, which can be a problem in later life."
Hughes hopes the course is taken up by many more colleges, particularly in her native Scotland where funding has not yet been forthcoming. The United Nations and the European Association of Caring Organisations have already expressed an interest.
She also hopes the newly founded Ransackers Association, a network of former students, takes off. Many form close friendships on the course.
Carter recalls his alternative take on student life: "We were together from making the morning cups of tea to making the evening cups of cocoa."