Posted by: Gillian | November 3, 2008

Older learners in Higher Education

There is a UK institution that has ‘just noticed’ there are a number of ‘self-confident’ ‘older learners’ and is running courses in the education of these strange beings.  When you have stopped spluttering, this breathtaking view requires putting in to some sort of context.

The UK currently allows people aged over-21 to apply to higher education for a first (Bachelors) degree as independent adults rather than go through the full school-to-uni process.  These people may or may not be independent of their parents for funding purposes.  Aged about 26-30, full-time students can become PhD qualified so, somewhere about this point the perception is that people are now ‘adult learners’.  That is, they have not dropped out of the standard academic ladder but are still there because they want to be, have the intelligence, etc.

According to the National Statistics Office, almost a half of those ‘of [official] working age’ are over 40.  By 2020, over a third of the entire population of the UK will be over 50.  New technologies, new processes, new products and new customer bases are just a fact of working life.  You do them or get the sack.  Very often, the learning gets absorbed almost effortlessly as a variant of some process (etc) already known, but formal learning at HE level is also required.  People over 50 do go back and forth between HE and employment, albeit often with some administrative difficulty in systems geared for the 18+ route.  What is more, they always have.  What has changed and may be causing more adults in general to enrol in in bachelors programs is the proportion of young people gaining degrees and, therefore, the number of job adverts that require degrees as a pre-interview condition.  There is also the lamentable decline in ‘evening classes’, so if you are doing a ‘course’ there may be an added incentive to enrol for a degree particularly if, as at the Open University or Edinburgh Business School, you can spread the work out over a reasonable timeframe and still hold down the day job.

Strangely, the idea that adult learners suddenly become ‘older learners’ and, somehow, different on their 50th birthdays seems patronising and even worrying.  HE is not the preserve of the young.  Just look at the age of those in senior academic positions such as Vice-Rectors and Provosts – there are not many under 50 – and yet continual academic learning is part of their job spec.  Lifelong learning is just a simple fact of life for very many people and it would be a pity if the idea that being over the age of the former traditional 18-21student were somehow to become a problem.  If anything, with the changing national demographic, HE should consider having mainstream programmes to suit the over 25s and adapt them to suit pre-(work)experience people where necessary.

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