Opinion: Australian universities need to be more age-friendly — what does that look like in practice?
The following opinion piece co-authored by Dr Jed Montayre, School of Nursing and Midwifery and Translational Health Research Institute; Professor Alphia Possamai-Inesedy, School of Social Sciences; and Professor Yenna Salamonson, School of Nursing and Midwifery was first published with full links on The Conversation (opens in a new window).
Longevity and healthy ageing programs worldwide have embraced the slogan “adding life to years”. Ageing well is driven by a combination of factors, including lifelong education and civic participation. That points to the need to promote age-friendliness in higher education, also known as the age-friendly university initiative.
The Age-Friendly University (AFU) Global Network started in Ireland. It encourages universities and other higher education institutions to step up and respond to the educational needs of ageing populations such as Australia’s.
Universities are naturally committed to equity and celebrate diversity. However, they have more work to do to support the increasing numbers of both mature-age students (those who haven’t come straight out of school) and older learners.
The AFU Global Network has adopted ten principles of age-friendly universities. These encompass the themes of inclusion, opportunities for older people and the ability to actively participate, contribute and optimise learning opportunities such as late-life qualifications and research degrees. Universities around the world have started to embrace these principles.
As well as health care and community support services, age-friendly universities are an important piece of the whole age-friendly environment puzzle. An inclusive approach that values every generation will advance society.
Why should universities become age-friendly?
Age-friendly policies that promote inclusivity and diversity benefit the whole university community.
Inclusive university education typically involves supporting individuals to finish a degree, ensuring the best learning experience and establishing promising careers. However, the concept of having second-career, older learners is new to some.
Support mechanisms for older learners are rarely discussed, or relegated to disability support services. Surely, “being old is not a disability”. Disability is different from ageing.
Hence, engaging and supporting older students, staff or the retired community need not be based on deficits. The focus should be on optimising their potentials and abilities.
What distinguishes an Australian age-friendly university?
Enriching the exchange of knowledge and experiences would be a strong feature of age-friendly universities. Doing so would build on the increasingly diverse student populations of our universities. They have students from more than 150 countries of origin.
Older people have experience of different cultures and of living in earlier times. They would be able to share historical events, life experiences and real-world contexts with younger students.
Another feature of age-friendly Australian universities is wide geographical reach. They have campuses and operations in regional and metropolitan areas.
Older residents in rural areas are keen to take on opportunities for learning. They also want to actively contribute to their own community. Age-friendly universities would enable them to do both.
Age-friendliness benefits higher education
Being age-friendly offers multiple benefits for universities and the communities they serve.
An age-friendly university is friendly to all ages.
Meeting the needs of older learners results in a system that is friendly to other students. It may be as simple as easy-to-access online tools and websites.
An emphasis on age-friendliness should also stimulate educators to embrace robust approaches to teaching that suit individual learning needs and life experiences.
Age-friendly education delivers intergenerational benefits.
Age-friendly universities provide an environment for intergenerational learning and knowledge exchange. Such programs are increasingly popular, but most of these to date have been between older people and preschool children. While this approach has proven personal and health benefits, intergenerational learning should extend beyond the early learning and grandparenting concepts.
At university level, an intergenerational learning environment engages young and older citizens in collaborative learning, scholarly discussions and solving real-life societal problems.
Universities’ retired communities have much to contribute.
Active engagement of the university’s own retired community is vital. They can contribute to teaching, professional training and research.
Australia is a world leader in volunteering programs at both the international and local levels. Nevertheless, this generosity of spirit is not commonly put to use in universities.
If we can harness the untapped potential of older volunteers from the retired communities, the impacts on student learning experiences and the university are likely to be substantial.
Education does not have an age limit
The World Health Organisation’s first Global Report on Ageism outlined the goals of healthy ageing and strategies to reduce ageist attitudes at all levels of society. One of these strategies involves intergenerational educational programs. Clearly, universities have an active role to play here.
The time is right for Australian universities to join the Age-Friendly Universities Global Network. The University of Queensland is the first Australian member of the network, while others might still be contemplating membership. Regardless, age-friendly principles should be clearly articulated in all universities as they work towards responsive and inclusive education for all.
11 June 2021
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