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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December, 2004, 09:27 GMT
Learning in retirement
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

Rosemary Mackinder
Rosemary Mackinder says going to college has been a liberation. Picture by Robin Franklin
You're never too old to learn, so the saying goes.

Until relatively recently this was little more than a hollow cliché for most retired people, for whom access to education was limited.

But since the 1960s various movements - colleges, home-based courses and even a special university entirely for those of the "third age" - have started.

It is easier for pensioners, given a little effort, to learn than at any time before.

There are now officially more than 600,000 learners over the age of 60 in England alone.


For Rosemary Mackinder, 61 - one of the 150,000 returning to college for formal courses - it has been especially liberating.

Like many of her generation, her career was decided by her parents. Her late father thought being an artist was not a proper job, so she left art college as a teenager to work as a civil servant.

Last year, having retired, she took an access course in art at the Colchester Institute. One of only two students in her year to pass with distinction, she has begun a three-year degree in the subject.

"When I was a teenager, my father said go and get a sensible job. So I became a civil servant and went on to teach basic skills in a prison," she said.

"It was frustrating teaching people but not learning for myself."

"As soon as I enrolled [at Colchester] it was great. I loved mixing with the younger students. It was so involving for me and I think that worked both ways."


Rosemary, who is working on sculptures using light materials, is one of 267 over-60-year-olds at the college.

"It might sound a bit silly, but I wanted to find myself as an artist," she said.

"I would have done this before if I could have afforded the time or money. It sounds incredibly indulgent but I've always worked and it's lovely to have the opportunity.

"I don't feel old at all; I feel good. My mother said she could never have done this, but my generation can."

Rosemary's generation, and those considerably older, are giving real meaning to the government's desired state of "lifelong learning".

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said: "They are overwhelmingly doing part time, non-vocational courses which don't lead to a formal qualification.

"There is a very wide range, from yoga and aerobics through to painting, ICT, modern foreign languages and basic literacy and numeracy."

'Four ages of man and woman'

The Open University, the birthplace of modern home study, now takes 3% of its students from among the over-65s and 6% from the 55 to 64 age group.

It is keen to take this further.

But, unlike the growth of higher education, much of the expansion in pensioner learning has started informally and locally - from the bottom up.

The University of the Third Age, which recently celebrated its 21st birthday, has more than 140,000 people involved in its courses.

The name comes from the supposed division of people's lives into four stages. The first is young people's years in full-time education; the second when financial independence is tempered by family and other commitments.

Get to the third and you are still independent but without such ties - for most of us, this means retirement. The fourth is a state of relative dependency, such as being in a care home.

The University of the Third Age is curiously mis-named. It wants people to go on learning into the fourth age - and it is not even a university.

Some of our members are in the 80s and 90s, often not as mobile as before. They are what we call the fourth age
Bruce Cannon, University of the Third Age

Separate local groups offer courses and discussion groups in whatever expertises their members have and there is no exam at the end.

Lectures normally happen in members' houses.

U3A's publicity officer, Bruce Cannon, said: "Some people had disturbed school days because of the war or maybe they didn't feel it was something they were equipped to do.

"We do not normally employ professional tutors, relying on members with knowledge to pass it on. Where I am in Perth we are lucky to have two retired professors helping.

"It's been wonderful. When members move homes they start up groups in their new area and we keep on spreading."

To join one of the many local U3As, as they are known, costs from about £12 a year. A subscription entitles members to take part in all activities offered.

A group could run courses in languages, arts, sciences, archaeology, history, or anything, depending on the knowledge available.

Making learning a 'turn-on'

The Association of Colleges, which runs the bulk of further education, sees education for retired people as "threatened" by the government's funding focus on younger learners.

Mr Cannon feels U3A could offer a solution for many would-be students, being cheaper and "more accessible".

Groups are offering more computer training to extend their reach to the disabled and those living in remote areas.

Mr Cannon said: "Some of our members are in the 80s and 90s, often not as mobile as before. They are what we call the fourth age. We have to change to meet their needs.

"The gap from 60 to 90 is 30 years. That is a long time and it's unfair to group everyone together."

The title, though, can still be a problem.

Mr Cannon said: "People might find the word 'university' a turn-off. We have to get over some people's suspicions."

A survey by U3A in 2001 found 29% of members - the biggest proportion - joined for social reasons, while 12% were looking to meet others with similar interests at the lectures, field-trips and meetings.

Without a career aim in mind, this truly is "liberal education". Many of the UK's pensioners see study as a lifeline, keeping them mentally active and involved in the area where they live.

As Mr Cannon said: "There are millions more people out there who could get involved. I'm sure they would love it."

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