By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News education and family
The report says the baby-boomer generation will want access to courses
Universities must offer suitable courses for people aged 50 and above, a Universities UK report says.
The study says the ageing population in the UK "offers higher education institutions a serious challenge".
It says universities should set up centres in areas where there is a high density of retired people.
They should offer a range of courses such as moving from full-time to self-employment, ageing healthily, human rights and environmental citizenship.
Universities UK represents university leaders.
Its report - Active Ageing and Universities: Engaging Older Learners - suggests universities help people prepare for the "probable two decades" beyond their main working career.
They could be a "key partner" in "unlocking mental capital and promoting wellbeing in later life", it says.
And universities should apply their widening participation agendas - where those from backgrounds not accustomed to going to university are encouraged to apply - to all age groups, not just the young and working adults.
The study also urges universities to include modules on "active ageing" in training courses for health and social care professionals.
The proportion of the UK population aged 65 and over has increased steadily over the past 35 years from 13% of the population in 1971 to 16% in 2008.
This is projected to reach around 20% by 2026, the report said.
It noted that first-year part-time undergraduates and postgraduates aged 40 and above increased by 58% from 1998-99 to 2007-08 from 92,000 to 158,000.
The report said the number of older learners going to university would "almost certainly increase, given broader demographic and social changes".
The report found informal adult learning was flourishing, especially among the over-50s.
"Building upon and supporting this growth of interest could be a crucial future activity for universities," it said.
Chief executive of Universities UK Nicola Dandridge said the idea that people stopped making a useful contribution to society when they reached the age of 60 or 65 was outdated.
"We are facing a situation where older people are living longer and healthier lives and have, as a consequence, a huge amount to contribute. Universities have a significant part to play in harnessing that contribution," she said.
"Of course, proposals to support older people into universities must be considered in light of the current funding climate facing the sector.
"On the other hand, to ignore the potential contribution older people can make to our society and economy is short-sighted, and universities have a central role to play in supporting and reinforcing their contribution."
The report comes after Universities Secretary Lord Mandelson said part-time and two-year courses should not be seen as inferior to standard degrees.
Speaking at a conference in Nottingham to commemorate Lord Dearing, the architect of Labour's policy on student tuition fees, Lord Mandelson said new routes into higher education must be expanded.