As Postgraduate Student Experience Officer in the College of Arts and Law (CAL) I enjoy challenging people’s perceptions of the students that I work with. My favourite opening gambit is a single statistic:
“Did you know [I pause for a fraction of a second] that around sixty five percent of people beginning a masters degree course in CAL are over twenty five at the start of their programme?”
My prediction for 2026 is that the proportion of postgraduate students in CAL who are over twenty five at the start of their programme (often much, much older) will increase further and have become incredibly prominent within the College. I’ll devote the rest of this blog post to outlining what I think that this shift will mean for graduate study in the humanities at Birmingham and institutions like it.
For as long as I can remember public discourse in the UK has been dominated by talk of the implications of an “aging society”. The strong birth cohorts of the late 1940s, 1950s and earlier 1960s are approaching the end of their working lives. One thing that often discussed (frequently with a degree of snark by millennials like myself) is that many of these “baby boomers” have money, lots of money. In 2015 nearly seventy percent of the UK’s wealth was held by people born before 1965, with the same age group also accounting for around fifty percent of the UK’s spending power.
The facts, in demographic and accounting terms are clear, the UK is getting older and the old are increasingly wealthy. But what are they going to do with this wealth? What are their inclinations and predilections? I reckon postgraduate study in the humanities might be one of them.
After all, while sections of British society might genuinely be “tired of experts”, when it comes to the big questions in life, arts and culture, other parts seem unable to get enough of them. From Radio Four, through the Hay Festival, to the groaning shelves of military history and biography in Waterstones, testify at base level to the sheer volume of demand in the UK for “cultural” activities and pursuits of all sorts.
And at a more substantive level, it is often forgotten that the generation born after 1945, the “baby boomers”, were the first generation to enjoy what can be described as “mass higher education”. Between 1960 and 1970 the number of UK school leavers in higher education rose from around one in thirty to about one in ten, hitting one in five in the middle of the 1980s. Meaning as they approach retirement, that baby boomers are at least three times more likely than members of the previous generation to have prior experience of university study.
Which doesn’t in of itself mean that they’d be inclined to return forty or fifty years later, but I have an inkling that they might. Today, the economic and political pressures swirling around the sector encourage us to view the post-war era, when higher education was ninety percent funded by state grants, as a halcyon age. It was of course nothing of the sort, in fact postgraduate opportunities could be even harder to come by than they are today. At Birmingham as far back as 1972 Stuart Hall the Acting Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was complaining that “a scarcity of grants and other funding is seriously impacting upon our ability to admit graduate students… and financial difficulties and the need to balance studies with heavy loads of teaching and other work for those who make it”.
Plus ça change? One thing that is different today-for the students of 1970s-is that with retirement approaching and now often comfortably off, they’ll have the time and resources to pursue postgraduate study. Many already are. In one of my other guises (as a SHaC MA student), I sometimes attend academic conferences and encounter research students in their fifties and sixties who are “picking up where they left off”, engaged in research projects that they abandoned or were unable to start as young people because life got in the way. As an institution we have a brilliant opportunity (not just in the arts and humanities, but across the university) to welcome these people back to the academy and say #HelloBrum to countless other people nearing or embarking upon retirement that want to explore new things.
There’s also hard headed reasons for doing so. Demographic trends mean that they’ll be more UK domiciled eighteen year olds by 2026, but long-term birth rates may continue to fall. Likewise changes in the sector, the wider economy and geopolitics could well put pressure student recruitment in arenas where we are currently strong. Older learners in the midlands that are looking to study on campus will look upon us favourably as a major research intensive institution close to home, whilst those studying at a distance will buy into the solidity of our reputation and the vibrancy of our research culture. Unlike younger students, older ones with mortgages paid off, established networks of family and friends, and potentially residual employment commitments, are unlikely to want to up and move to another part of the country or the globe.
Which is not to say that an older postgraduate student body will not bring new challenges and demands while throwing new light upon old ones. I’ve outlined some of the big questions below:
- How can we help older students balance the competing demands (voluntary work, paid work, caring responsibilities) on their time with study?
- How will older students want to learn?
- What support in terms of welfare provision, academic and personal development will older students benefit from and require?
- What “transition support” will they need to return to study?
- What are the implications for our processes and teaching/assessment styles?
How can we address them?
We need to recognise even more than now, that at whatever age you commence it, postgraduate study is a choice very different from embarking upon a bachelor’s degree. Whilst, whether on a taught or research focused programme, students are here to learn and develop under the tutelage of the academic staff, they are choosing to be here and come with a lot of prior knowledge already gained through previous academic, professional and life experience.
Realising this enables us to start to think about how appropriate study programmes for older learners might be facilitated. Why is it that we need compel somebody to complete a programme of study within a very strict timeframe? Why not allow students whether attending or distance learning to take modules or progress their research at their own pace? Quite a few institutions (as the OU and London’s Global Programmes have for decades) already allow students to enroll by the module and then work towards qualifications at their own pace. Whilst moving towards such a system throws up questions of logistics and academic workload management, the university already has well developed progress monitoring frameworks for postgraduates and these could be further developed. This will enable all postgraduates, not just older learners, to more easily dip in and out of study as they are able.
It is also imperative that students are taught and supported in ways that suit them. As the Big Conversation has teased out brilliantly, it is imperative that educators at all levels rethink aspects of their practice for the digital age. But what will the impact of these developments be upon learners whose minds were formed during the “Gutenberg age”? Whilst learners at every age benefit greatly and appreciate contact with other students and academics and collaborative ways of working, perhaps the model of the relatively solitary humanities scholar actually suits older learners quite well? It would be patronising and absurd to suggest that older learners are uninterested in and cannot pick up new technologies and use them to benefit their studies. The newly retired of 2026 will be people who lived through the white heat of the IT revolution. E-mail, Google and Microsoft Office, will be old friends, but perhaps they’d rather read a (paper) book than engage with their tutors and peers via Snapchat, Periscope, or whatever the hot video based social app of 2026 is.
Which is not to say that the ubiquity of social media, social messaging and online video technologies will not revolutionise students’ ability to fully participate in postgraduate study. Already in CAL we are having discussions about how we can utilise such mediums to better support not just distance learning, but also campus based students induction to study and their learning experience. I hope that by 2026 these discussions and early experiments have borne fruit and that the ubiquity of video technology and massively improved forum and networking tools (no more clunky, lifeless, Canvas forums) have collapsed boundaries between campus based and distance learning, enabling distance and part-time learners to participate fully-if they wish-in the research life of our college (symposiums, seminars, roundtables) as if they were here in Edgbaston.
In terms of support older learners needs differ surprisingly little from those of younger ones. Problems from relationship breakdown to mental ill health can affect students whether they are eighteen or eighty. But in other regards they will have challenges very different from those of younger students entering postgraduate education straight from undergraduate programmes. On a practical level if they have been out of education for a long time, potentially decades, they’ll need support to get up to speed with what’s changed in academia, not just in terms of changed methods and fields of enquiry (E.P. Thompson remains on the History Department’s reading lists, but in English Literature and Philosophy it’s more likely to be F.R. Leavis? A.J. who?) but also in practical terms with regards to referencing conventions and research skills, bootcamps to dust-off academic writing skills. This could create new professional services opportunities in the form of academic skills and writing coaches and return to study advisors, it could also open up the possibility of short new foundation courses (akin to the BIA) for returners to education that want to get a head start at returning to study or who are changing field of study. Think someone who graduated with a BComm in 1981 but having retired just in time for the 2026/27 academic year fancies studying art history.
On an existential and interpersonal level it’ll bring increased challenges for both academic and professional services staff in terms of how they relate to older students. Sure, they are here to learn and we are the recognised “experts” in our fields, but feedback we’ve received from students in CAL indicates that it is psychologically difficult for our older students who are often retired or semi-retired professionals or managers (recognised “experts” in their areas) to get used to being prompted and criticised, however lightly, in an educational setting. There are doubtless also areas of demand that we currently cannot anticipate. For instance, should Careers Network hire a consultant and advisors to support students’ “retirement planning and goals”, getting in alumni to talk about how they’ve successfully transitioned to not working, in addition to the work that they currently do supporting younger students’ career aspirations?
I’ll confess to having a little bit of an ulterior motive in penning this post. Whilst I do think that there’s strong and growing demand from what I’ve termed “older learners” for postgraduate study and there will be great benefits for the university if we can successfully tap into it, much of what I have outlined above would be brilliant innovations for postgraduate students of all ages.
My post is relatively unusual for a member of professional services staff in that it is split fifty-fifty between taught and research postgraduates. Which is brilliant in that it means that I come into contact with a wide array of postgraduates, gaining insights into their needs and motivations along the way. Working in this way has shown me that the overwhelming majority of CAL’s postgraduates, whatever life stage or situation they are in, are not necessarily rushing through their postgraduate education to have a tilt at the academic jobs market. Rather, many of them whether they are twenty two or seventy two are pursuing their studies for a mixture of reasons that balance personal enjoyment and fulfillment with personal development and career advancement.
It is essential (and my job will continue to be ensuring) that we provide strong provision for those on a career track, however, the health, vibrancy and sustainability of our postgraduate communities can only be enhanced by recognising that there is a endless multiplicity of ways to be a postgraduate. In 2017 this is obvious, by 2026 recognising and celebrating it will be paramount as well as healthy.
For better and for worse the current trends in society that are leading to a fragmentation of work and the need to constantly update your qualifications and skill set are going to continue and to intensify. More flexible postgraduate study, more inclusive modes of delivery and engagement and greater diversity of personal development careers planning, will be essential for every university that seeks to thrive in this era. I hope that the key issues and models that I have outlined for how we can encourage and support participation from older learners spark thought and discussion about how we can extend this to all postgraduate learners.
Despite being a natural optimist, it is hard to envisage a scenario for 2026 in which the head winds around the sector do not continue to be strong. “Traditional postgraduate” recruitment in CAL has been fairly flat for years, much of our student growth is already coming from online and part-time learners. When I was an undergraduate in the early part of this decade (at a Russell Group institution, but not UoB) many of my peers went on to study for law, accounting and business qualifications at what we now call “alternative providers”, this trend will only intensify. Which is not to say, judging by the conversations that I have with them, that they’ll never return to “traditional” university study, on the contrary many would love to! But I’ll leave the question of how to welcome them back to another Postgraduate Student Experience Officer, who right now is probably engaged in important educational work like playing in a sandpit, watching Teletubbies, or posting star shapes through holes, but who’ll figure that one out ahead of the Big Conversation about 2056. I look forward to reading!