If higher education does not widen its perspective from a focus on a young undergraduate student body, the economy could suffer, education experts have said.
The warning came at a seminar held recently at the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education to highlight higher education's failure to address the needs of adults outside the traditional university age, many of whom cannot study full time. In the UK, longer life spans and falling birth rates mean that elderly people are increasing as a proportion of the population. That pattern will continue for at least 40 years.
Chris Duke, associate director of higher education at Niace, said the government's 50 per cent participation target and the recent higher education white paper brought home the failure to recognise how the new demography would affect every facet of society.
With the labour force shrinking, pressure over recent decades to remove people from the workforce earlier was being thrown into sharp reverse, Dr Duke said. "Investment in an up-skilled and energised workforce will pay high dividends. And investment in older adults learning may pay off handsomely in health and welfare budgets and in terms of quality of civic life and wealth of exploitable social capital."
Sixteen to 24-year-olds form a shrinking proportion of the population - 10 per cent compared with 14 per cent in 1961. And at the other end of the scale, 65 to 74-year-olds will have grown from 7.5 per cent of the population in 1961 to 10.5 per cent by 2025.
Tom Schuller, dean of continuing education at Birkbeck College, London, said: "As the shape of the population changes, complex issues arise that call for a much longer-term perspective."
He said the problem stemmed from policy-makers and others who could not see beyond the traditional life pattern of education followed by work and then leisure after retirement. Shaping a higher education system around the needs of 18-year-old full-time undergraduates did not address change, Professor Schuller said, and would lead only to more opportunities for some individuals at the expense of others.
Dr Duke said it was time to get out of the time warp and develop a higher education system based on the archetype of an employed person of any age who studies part time across a spectrum of courses from foundation degrees and access programmes to postdoctoral training.
He said that higher education was not the only sector affected by the changing population. The pensions crisis highlighted an issue with wide social and economic ramifications.
Over 80 - but not over the hill
Robert Page has bucked the trend by getting his degree in fine art from Sunderland University at the age of 81.
For his degree show, he created several large canvases depicting his service in the merchant navy during the second world war and smaller works inspired by his 26 years as a miner.
He took up art at Peterlee Community College as a hobby after his wife died. He said: "To my amazement, I came out with an A level and, unknown to me, my teacher wrote to the University of Sunderland and told them they should consider me for a place."
Mr Page is now considering taking a masters.