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Retirees proving age no barrier to intellectual growth

Traditional universities and the online universe are offering myriad avenues to explore educational opportunities, whether that be for pleasure, vocational training or formal learning for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The social interaction is a bonus.

‘Ancora Imparo,’ Latin for ‘I am still learning’ – a quote from Michelangelo – is the motto of Melbourne’s Monash University. But as a reminder that the search for knowledge never ends, it should be the motto of every older person.

Not just for its own sake, and the enjoyment and satisfaction of learning, but for brain health. Although the potential deleterious effects of ageing on the brain are well-known, study after study confirms that when you stimulate your brain, you can counter – or at least delay – memory loss and cognitive degeneration. Call it ‘mental fitness’ because it is the same as physical fitness.

‘Learning’ is such a nebulous concept, ranging as it does from simply opening a book or a podcast, or going down a fascinating rabbit hole on Google, to enrolling in a university degree. But whatever your concept of it, you should never stop exercising the grey matter.

  • And the menu of lectures, presentations, classes, courses and programs is plentiful enough to mean you should never have to – whether it is learning for pleasure, vocational training or upskilling, or formal education.

    No matter your age, more educational content is freely accessible than ever before. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are large online learning platforms, offer free (usually!) online courses, on a very broad range of subjects, available to anyone: more than 1,300 universities around the world have launched free online courses. 

    Examples include Coursera (the largest, with 129 million learners worldwide tackling more than 7,000 online courses), edX and FutureLearn. Open Universities Australia also offers a varied range of affordable short courses that can take from two hours to six months to complete.

    ASX-listed MOOC platform OpenLearning provides what it calls a cloud-hosted ‘social learning platform’ for delivering short courses, blended learning, ‘micro-credentials’ that suit professional and online degrees.

    Chief executive officer Adam Brimo believes many older Australians are actively learning, including on the OpenLearning platform. “We don’t ask learners for their age when they enrol. But our estimated demographic data suggests that about 4 per cent of the learners on OpenLearning are over 55,” he says. While that sounds a tiny number, more than 3.5 million have taken courses through the platform since 2012.

    OpenLearning has realised that the initial promise of MOOCs has faded as engagement levels and course-completion rates have waned. The answer, says Brimo, is changing the learning experience from passive to active that suits older people looking for engagement.

    “Some of our courses have a high level of social interaction and provide opportunities to meet new people and teach each other,” says Brimo. In what has become a ‘learner-driven’ market, he says activities must generate discussion, with a focus on mentoring, guiding and fostering peer-to-peer interaction among learners.

    For those who want the social aspect of learning together, but in person, University of the Third Age (U3A) runs a range of courses on topics including languages, philosophy, music, art, literature, as well as social activities based on exercise and cultural events.

    U3A has about 100,000 members across the country, says Annie Grigg, president of the U3A Network Victoria, who all pay an annual fee to join (typically under $100). Most are retired or semi-retired. “I would say that the split between social and educational, as the reason why people join, is about 50:50,” says Grigg. “People love the classes, and we know the educational aspect is very important to our members, but really, I think people want connection, and our classes and excursions provide that opportunity.”

    Then there is an actual university, which can be done online, or in-person. Again, the numbers are likely small, but La Trobe University deputy vice-chancellor Jessica Vanderlelie (pictured) sees a “steady trickle” of people 50 and over enrolling in undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

    “The number of such people has grown by more than 30 per cent in the past five years,” says Vanderlelie. “We’ve got just over 800 students who are over 50 at La Trobe this year, and 132 students, who are over 60. Our oldest graduate was in their 80s which is wonderful. It’s growing, but it’s still a small cohort, about 2.4 per cent of our student population.”

    Vanderlelie says there are two kinds of older-age students; those wanting to change careers or augment original experience in their careers, and the “more romantic” type of student who simply wants to study something they’ve always wanted to study, but never had the chance.

    “Some of what we hear from those coming to university later in life is very much about changing their life circumstances, now their children have grown up, or there’s been some other change that gives them more flexibility. Typically, we see that in the health sciences; we have a lot of older students coming through nursing and the allied health disciplines,” she says.

    The other kind of older student comes to – or back to – university just to soak themselves in knowledge. “There is the sort of person who wakes up one day and thinks, ‘I’d like to study Russian literature or Asian history, and just drink from the fire hose,” says Vanderlelie. “We see that mostly in the humanities, and particularly in a lot of our older Ph.D. students. What we really love to see, and would love to see more of, is older people who thought that education was never for them, but deciding, now that their time is their own, to come and get that degree that they always wanted to get.”

    Of course, university is not free; but Vanderlelie says prospective students should not let that deter them. Whatever their age, they can obtain loans for education from the Federal Government under the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) scheme, as well as a range of social security payments and benefits to help relieve the cost. There are also scholarships that the universities themselves provide to students, particularly for PhDs, so that older candidates are not excluded from existing levels of financial support.

    “I think we’re getting better at realising that people learning in older age is an important contribution to society, and that older people can make important contributions not only to the economy, but the country’s cultural and societal fabrics,” says Vanderlelie.

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