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“The appetite for education in later life is greater than expected”

Older people in Switzerland would like to have far more educational opportunities than are currently available, a new national study carried out by senior citizens universities, adult education institutions and the UZH Center for Gerontology has found. In an interview with UZH News, gerontologist Mike Martin explains why education is so important for older people.
Marita Fuchs; English translation by Caitlin Stephens
Seniors are also looking for educational formats in which they can contribute their wealth of experience and knowledge, and which allow for critical reflection and discussion.

Mike Martin, you have just published a study on the educational needs of Swiss people aged 60 to 90. What surprised you the most?

I was surprised at what a great appetite senior citizens have for educational opportunities. The range of opportunities needs to be greatly increased to meet this demand. I was also surprised at what nuanced and precise ideas they have of what they would like to see on offer.

How did you get the information?

The figures are based on randomized online interviews of residents in Switzerland aged 60 and over – with no upper age limit. A total of about 1,000 people were interviewed.

What is behind this great thirst for learning?

Lifelong learning is very often talked about only in relation to working life, but that falls short. The appetite for education continues in old age – and is even greater than expected.

What concrete measures should be taken?

We need to expand the range of educational opportunities, because broad educational opportunities make sense for society as a whole. Well-informed citizens are important for the community, as they are open to and take a critical interest in research and new developments. This applies to all age groups, of course.

Good education also costs money – who should pay for it?

The fees need to be at a level that pensioners can afford. Good-quality education is ultimately a question of political will.

What sort of subjects are older people most interested in?

About 10 years ago, medical topics were most popular. That has changed a lot. Today, older people are interested in all the academic disciplines. And they don’t just want to absorb knowledge, they want formats that offer opportunities for critical reflection. This can be seen in the area of digitalization, for example. We specifically addressed this topic in our survey. The older learners are interested in finding out about the latest technologies and how they work, but they also want to discuss and examine the advantages and disadvantages and have debates about data security and the social changes associated with digitalization, for example. 

On average, Swiss citizens are fit and healthy until the age of 74. What learning formats do they prefer?

Interestingly, there has also been a significant change here. Older people today are flexible and mobile. It is a mixed group. The image of older people sitting at home on the sofa and reading is not true. On the whole, older people are out and about a lot and are quite open to online formats. They want educational opportunities that fit into their schedules. The study also revealed something else: Many over-65s don’t just want to listen to lectures, but want to actively participate in classes and contribute their wealth of experience and knowledge. It’s important to today’s older people that they can have a say and an influence. That’s why at the Senior Citizens University which I lead at UZH, we are offering more interactive formats in which participants can take an active role.

What conditions are required to attract older people to continuing education programs? 

18 percent of respondents age 60 and older are currently actively participating in one or more educational programs. But it is clear that we need to do more to further raise awareness about what educational opportunities are available. We also need to try to reach those people who think they would like to attend courses but have not yet found access to educational opportunities.

In concrete terms, what can you do to raise awareness of and widen access to the Senior Citizens University of Zurich?

We have a very affordable annual pass, we just need to get the word out more. We are now trying to use graduates of the Senior Citizens UZH as educational ambassadors, and we would like to improve our range of online courses. We want to reach all those who are interested in research topics and introduce taster weeks for this purpose.

As a researcher, you are concerned with healthy aging. Will there be more studies on education in old age?

Yes, the current study is a starting point for further monitoring. We want to learn much more about how best to provide lifelong learning for all.