A study by the Xarxa Vives network shows that the UIC Barcelona Experience Campus programme improves physical and mental health and benefits the social and cultural life of people over 50

The research calls for support from government to make university programmes for older people accessible to all

The Xarxa Vives universities network and the Pere Tarrés Foundation have today presented the results of their study “Formación universitaria sénior. Informe sobre el impacto social en el estudiantado” (‘University education for older people. A report on the social impact on the student body’). The study was carried out among the students of the university programmes aimed at older generations at seventeen universities in the Xarxa Vives network, which aim to promote active ageing, guarantee the right to education for everyone at all stages of their life, improve the quality of life of older people and enable this collective to continue as active agents and participants in society. The older-generation student body represents about 6% of the university population. The group is even more predominantly female than that of undergraduate and master's students, with 67% of students being women. Eight out of ten students have studied before: 62.4% have been to university, while 24.8% have studied up to secondary-school education. In terms of age, more than half are between the ages of 60 and 69 (52.6%), a percentage that increases to 88.7% if we include the 70 to 79 age bracket. The median age is 68 years old.

At UIC Barcelona, university programmes for older people are taught at the Experience Campus. The student body on these programmes represents 1.3% of this institution’s university population.

The results of the research show that senior university education positively impacts the physical and mental health, as well as the general well-being, of the students taking these courses. The longer a person has been enrolled in one of these university programmes, the more benefits they perceive, especially in terms of health and social relationships. In this sense, those surveyed recognise that studying at university helps them to overcome fears and complexes, reduce feelings of anxiety or depression, overcome traumatic life situations (widowhood, illness or loss of a family member), improve their intellectual capacity and memory, be more tolerant and humble, be more receptive to learning how to use ICTs, and increase their contact with their immediate environment. In addition, studying on university programmes for older people is associated with an increase in the students' cultural activity (such as visiting museums, theatres or cinemas), which increases their knowledge and allows them to participate in conversations more fluently and confidently, as well as having a more critical and broader vision of their environment than before starting these programmes, according to the study.

The study also shows the positive effects that these university programmes have on specific groups, such as women, older students, or those with little prior education. Specifically, the women involved in the study recognise that university campuses provide spaces that free them from traditionally imposed gender-based roles (such as caring for children, grandchildren and the home), which significantly improves their self-esteem and self-recognition. The research also shows that among those who only have primary education, there are twice the number of women (69.2%) than men (30.8%), which is why it is important to apply a gender perspective when promoting these programmes among older populations.

Along with women, people over 76 also perceive more benefits associated with attending university. The establishment of routines and social obligations to attend class has a schedule-therapy effect for these pupils, allowing them to reconnect with the outside world, become socially involved, avoid isolation and loneliness, and maintain a social image and not neglect themselves. As the study suggests, these generations tend to have a lower level of education and therefore start their university studies with great enthusiasm, viewing it as an opportunity to improve and grow, feel useful and make up for lost time. That being said, it seems that it is to this sector of the population, which most benefits from university education, that these programmes reach the least, as only two out of ten have no or only primary education, while six out of ten have previous university studies. In this sense, the authors of the study call for greater support from public administrations in making programmes for older people available to all citizens and, especially, to the profile of older members of society with a lower academic level, as well as to women, who are the groups that will benefit most.

The results published today also indicate the impact the pandemic has had on the senior community. The health crisis has led to a disruption of routines and a break-down of relationships, which has had negative consequences on both students’ mood and personal well-being. The migration to an online learning system was stressful for many at first, and for others, online sessions have made it more difficult to concentrate. Even so, most of them recognise that the chance to continue their learning has increased their motivation to study during a very difficult time and has provided them with an opportunity to enhance their knowledge of new technologies.

“Formación universitaria sénior. Informe sobre el impacto social en el estudiantado” has been coordinated by the Senior Programmes Working Group of the Xarxa Vives network (which integrates the heads of these units at the universities involved in the study), and has been directed by Montserrat Garcia-Oliva, from the Pere Tarrés Faculty of Social Education and Social Work at Ramon Llull University. University education for older people is taught by around 2,000 teachers (which accounts for 6% of all teaching and research staff) in seventeen of the universities that make up the Xarxa Vives network, and 78 university hubs distributed throughout Catalonia, with the aim of decentralising academic activity and bringing education closer to older people.

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