University for senior citizens

March 17, 1995

Student Gunter Honicke became a local celebrity when he completed his MA in history at the University of Hamburg, Germany, in a near record-breaking nine semesters.

The secret of his success? Age. The 75-year-old retired journalist says it was easier for him than for his younger colleagues because "I did not have to support my studies with a part-time job or worry about finding a career". He was also motivated by a lifetime's ambition to study, which had been thwarted in his youth by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Mr Honicke is one of 800 students aged over 50 enrolled at Hamburg and one of about 40,000 elderly students throughout Germany who study not as a means to a career but for sheer pleasure.

So great is the thirst for knowledge from retired Germans - either as so-called "guest listeners" or as fully enrolled students - that many universities in larger cities now offer specialist courses for elderly students.

But now two German academics have recognised an untapped talent and are founding a university for Senioren in Holzen, in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg. The first 120 students will be admitted in November.

Demographic statistics indicate they will not be short of applicants. By the year 2000, a quarter of the German population will be over 60, and by 2020, a third.

One of the founders, Helmut Bachmaier, professor of literature at the University of Constance, said: "Many elderly people are still active and we want to put their experience to use in research and teaching."

The academics have already raised most of the DM20 million (Pounds 8 million) they estimate they will need for the first five years. The institution will be privately financed with donations and student fees of between DM1,000 and DM1,500 (Pounds 400 and Pounds 600) per trimester. Student accommodation, to be provided in a converted hotel, will cost extra.

The project is an example of a growing interest in private higher education in Germany as an alternative to the overcrowded state system.

But Professor Bachmaier said their project differs from most private initiatives because it will be geared more "towards the arts than technical and economic subjects".

Standards will be just as rigorous as at state universities. In the first instance, it will be staffed by five professors and a team of up to 15 part-time lecturers.

Applicants must have the Abitur, the school-leaving certificate which qualifies German pupils for university entrance, and must also pass the institution's own selection process. They have applied for their degrees to be recognised by the state of Baden-Wurttemberg.

However, the university will not be universally for the elderly. The ratio between young and old is expected to be one to five. The emphasis with be on continuing or "second chance" education.

Professor Bachmaier said: "Older students tend to be more motivated and competent than younger students. Because they have their careers behind them, they can afford a more rounded view. But they learn more slowly than younger colleagues."

Mr Honicke agrees: "Their short-term memory is better than mine but I evaluate things better."

But Mr Honicke, who is now completing a PhD at Hamburg on "Jewish Foundations and Legacies in Hamburg", would not have chosen higher education catering especially to the elderly. "I enjoy the contact with younger people this has given me," he said.

Universities also report that despite massive overcrowding, younger students also react well to the "grey-heads", as they call them.

But Professor Bachmaier and his co-founder, art academic Martin Rabe, have had such a flood of elderly applications from France and Switzerland as well as Germany, that they are already thinking in wider European terms. "We hope this will become a model for Europe," said Professor Bachmaier.

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