Age-friendly universities can engage older students

Cultural transformation in higher education institutions is required for universities to become more flexible and thereby accommodate older people and later-life learning.

Input from older members of communities is important in addressing questions around the role of universities in contemporary society as well as access to higher-level knowledge.

From this, “the possibilities for mutual learning, dynamic development and innovative outcomes are considerable and the contribution to the community at large is immense”.

This is according to research by Rob Mark, of the Place, Social Capital and Learning Regions International Observatory (Africa hub) (PASCAL) under the auspices of the Centre for Local Economic Development, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

He authored a chapter, ‘Promoting universities that engage new groups of older adults’, in the scholarly publication Learning for a Better Future: Perspectives on higher education, cities, business & civil society.

Mark worked on the development of an age-friendly university (AFU) initiative while he was the head of the Centre for Lifelong Learning (CLL) at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland in the United Kingdom. It also involved working with Dublin City University, Ireland, and Arizona State University, United States.

He points out that most institutions focus on the educational needs of young adults and that “the voices of older members of society have a pivotal role to play in encouraging new approaches to inclusion in universities”.

Furthermore, institutions need to consider alternatives to their many systems built around full-time and part-time learning.

He believes that lifelong learning is a human right and that the age-friendly university, or AFU, is a response to “the changing nature of the life course from a linear to a more dynamic and complex model”.

“Increased longevity, coupled with the changing nature of work (that is, more IT and home-based), employment (insecurity) and family structures (more single households and ‘patchwork’ families) suggest the need for a new view on the stages of life,” he says.

Principles of age-friendly higher education

Mark was involved in the conceptualisation of the AFU, which began at Dublin City University, along with researchers, adult learners and organisations representing older adults’ interests. The principles are:

• To encourage the participation of older adults in the activities of the university, including educational and research programmes;

• To promote personal and career development in the second half of life and to support those who wish to pursue ‘second careers’;

• To recognise the range of educational needs of older adults (from those who were early school-leavers through to those who want to pursue a masters degree or doctorate);

• To promote intergenerational learning to facilitate the mutual sharing of expertise between learners of all ages;

• To widen access to online educational opportunities for older adults and to widen pathways to participation;

• To ensure that the university’s research agenda is informed by the needs of an ageing society and to promote public discourse on how higher education can better respond to the varied interests and needs of older adults;

• To increase the understanding of students of the longevity dividend and the increasing complexity and richness that ageing brings to society;

• To enhance access for older adults to the university’s range of health and wellness programmes and its arts and cultural activities;

• To engage actively with the university’s own retired community; and

• To ensure regular interactions with organisations representing the interests of the ageing population.

He says these principles are the basis for incorporating the interests of older adults into a university’s teaching, research and engagement activities.

Learning opportunities for older adults

“The AFU is seeking to play a leadership role in strategically addressing the challenges of an ageing population through its research agenda, curriculum development, engagement with the ageing community and relationships with its own academic and support staff and students.

“This requires an interdisciplinary perspective harnessing the institution’s expertise and resources to investigate and address older adults’ interests in relation to larger societal issues.”

He refers to the University of Strathclyde, which is responding to the educational needs of older adults.

“Inclusivity and community outreach have characterised the development of the institution. By the mid-Eighties, the university embraced the learning in later life (3L) idea based largely on the University of the Third Age.”

It has spawned a myriad teaching, research and practical activities aimed at older adults. This includes public programmes being offered in areas including languages, history, the arts and natural and social sciences.

“Currently, about 1,500 learners aged over 50 are enrolled in targeted programmes. The learning programmes are wide-ranging and flexible, with a great many other non-formal activities such as self-help clubs and groups,” he says.

Ongoing support is provided for teachers and tutors through non-formal training and workshops, especially addressing how to develop better ways of learning.

Its success is attributed to partnerships within and outside the university to develop and deliver programmes, coupled with support for the work of CLL at the highest level, according to Mark.

Integral to this is engagement of older students in decision-making and in the development of extracurricular activities through a student association.

Intergenerational contact

The programme bridges the generational gap, meaning that young people can learn from their seniors and vice versa.

“The intergenerational contact has been useful in promoting new images of both older and younger people, placing young people at the forefront of challenging ageism,” he says.

The centre targets the growing older adult populations in the 50- to 59-year-old age range, a product of employer restructuring and downsizing. Skills-based classes – especially in information technology – have expanded, both for personal enrichment, and also for work-readiness.

“An overall uptake of optional university credits has also demonstrated that some students want official acknowledgement, while others have seen these as enhancing job opportunities,” says Mark.

A 3L student association helps integrate students into university life, with members encouraged to participate in university public lectures, intergenerational debates, concerts and art exhibitions.

Older adult volunteer groups become, for example, computer buddies and provide one-on-one learning support while there is a spinal injuries support network. Other services include one-on-one mentoring assistance with curriculum vitae-writing and interview skills.

“Over the years, the centre has built considerable expertise in older adult employment, which is of increasing relevance.”

Mark explains that the system has expertise in employment and skills-related training to encourage older adults to improve career prospects.

“It has worked with employers, trade unions and other business organisations to explore productive and flexible ways of integrating and maintaining older adults in the workforce.”

Furthermore, the centre has developed mechanisms for engaging older adults with the university’s research agenda.

“Older adults are now engaging in research that will … inform the university’s ambition to provide more responsive programmes for older people and … inform public policy-makers about the educational needs of older people.”

On the other hand, Dublin City University launched AFU in 2012 and incorporated the 10 principles into its mission, according to Mark.

Flexible learning programmes

Lifelong learning was further developed through the offering of flexible learning programmes (part-time or e-learning, largely at postgraduate level). The university is host to Ireland’s National Institute for Digital Learning.

It offers short programmes to the community, targeted particularly at widening access to adults who did not previously regard higher education as ‘being for them’.

Its intergenerational learning programme is focused on the identified needs and interests of older learners.

“The university has taken a lead in research on implications of specific aspects of ageing. For example, it has set a major focus on early onset dementia, getting involved with European Union projects such as In-MINDD (innovative midlife intervention for dementia deterrence) and an elevator project supporting awareness raising and training in relation to dementia.”

It has developed programmes around health and wellness: it hosts a MedEx programme which, under the care of a medical director, brings thousands of older adults to the university campus for a wide range of programmes aimed at supporting healthy living, like HeartSmart – cardiac rehabilitation.

It explores the use of innovative technology for learning to help older adults who face exclusion from learning activities because of physical and social barriers.

The university also works in partnership with various subject disciplines to promote entrance to established university courses. The student association organises non-formal learning activities to support formal learning through ‘clubs’ that are largely social and recreational in nature.

However, some of the challenges experienced by these universities are that students sometimes find it difficult to integrate into classes attended by younger students, while programmes for older adults tend to be introductory and often non-accredited and do not provide opportunities for older adults who want to study at a higher level.

For Mark, “these case studies show how universities can embrace age-friendly principles and develop policies and practices that seek to bring about change by integrating older people into the life of universities and engaging in research that is relevant and useful to the needs of older people”.

He stresses that the AFU building blocks are “both relevant and correctly targeted at promoting the quality of life of older adults”.

“They are firmly based on a partnership approach involving teachers, researchers, community organisations and learners working together in the delivery of programmes.”