Are universities doing enough to attract learners over the age of 60?

At a recent university community open event I met a spritely octogenarian who was filled with curiosity about the new university that had just arrived on her doorstep. During the conversation she shared with me that she would have treasured the opportunely to attend university when she was younger and that she had particularly enjoyed learning later in life, it was just too late for her to go to university. We ended up speaking for a while, with me explaining that I have known several undergraduate students who started university much later in life than the ‘average’ mature student. As her interest grew, the questions became more detailed, from finance to student life. We concluded together that there was no reason she couldn’t still benefit from a higher education. By 2028, the UK State pension age will reach 67 and it is predicted continue to rise at a faster rate than originally expected. There is a real prospect that those in primary school will be working into their 80s. My own father was still working in his early 70s, despite an annual ritual of saying he will retire next year, he enjoyed problem solving, learning new things, and meeting people. The evidence suggests this trend of working in later life will continue through both choice and necessity, and this is already the case in United States. It is reasonable to assume industry will require this segment of the workforce to retrain and develop higher skills. So, what does this mean for higher education?

The benefits

I believe there are benefits for both the individual and society in more over 60s entering higher education:

  • Younger members of the cohort can benefit from their experience
  • It may support greater understanding between generations and help to develop the skills required for the future intergenerational workforce
  • There is the potential to tackle isolation and loneliness at all ages
  • There is the possibility to improve health and mental wellbeing. e.g. <a href=””></a>

Despite the potential benefits, there has been a declining proportion of over 25s applying and entering university, in particular part-time learners. I suspect this decline in students is even worse for over 60s.

The barriers

What are the barriers for more over 60s applying to university? It shouldn’t be the cost of fees, as there is no age limit on tuition fee loans for eligible full or part-time study. The standard maintenance loan scheme is currently not available to over 60s, however, some people will be able to access a Special Support Grant of up to £4,009. The barrier relating to finance is more likely due to the lack of knowledge and the absence of promotion of the level of support available to the more mature learner. A significant barrier for many potential students will be the absence of relevant qualifications to enter a course. As a sector are we doing enough to inform this group about the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) process? The Access to HE Diploma is also an ideal starting point for those who have been away from formal education, with a long history of supporting mature learners to gain the skills and confidence to enter HE. Additionally, many universities have a foundation year offering and/or intensive preparation courses that could support more students over 60.

The opportunity

Unsurprisingly, HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) data shows that the Open University has significantly more mature learners than any other university. In addition, several campus-based universities feature at the top of the list, including Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) as the second largest provider. How many institutions have any targeted marketing or outreach activity for over 60s? The new Minister with responsible for universities could support policy initiatives to prepare the higher education sector to meet the future needs of an older workforce by ensuing the system supports more learners over 60. Examples might include ensuring there is no reduced entitlement in future funding modes, and this could include a policy to prevent reduced funding in schemes such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rules could be reviewed to help support older learners, opening up undergraduate courses to those who gained equivalent qualifications many decades ago. In the regular Minister’s letter to the Office for Students (OfS), they could ask for new interventions in the Access and Participation Plans (APPs) to support an increase in the number of over 60s in HE, including those still in the workforce. I expect some will read this blog and question the value in supporting this group of learners. I don’t think we can expect rapid change, I really don’t expect the system to be overwhelmed with learners who are old enough to remember the introduction of the pocket calculator. However, I believe everyone benefits from a diversified student body that represents all aspects of society.


Professor Ross Renton

Inaugural Principal ARU Peterborough

Co-Chair FACE

Picture Matt Bennett

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