Will the policy of lifelong learning continue increasing social differences?

Educating elderly people supports local, economic and social development, and ensures social cohesion.

The colloquium ‘Will the policy of lifelong learning continue increasing social differences?” took place in a small town of Ajdovšèina in Western Slovenia and was organised by the local Third Age University.

Not only has The Slovenian Third Age University grown into the most numerous[1] voluntary educational movement of adults in the country over the last twenty years, but it has also induced many crucial changes in Slovenian adult education. Presently, it is one of the few organised structures in this country where older and younger people can learn from each other and construct new knowledge together. Alongside younger mentors there are also older, often outstanding experts who act as mentors and/or students. Within the structure of the Slovenian Third Age University they have found an opportunity to transfer their knowledge to different generations- i.e. to younger generations and various generations of older people people- and to offer it, at the same time, to the local, national and international environment.

In a knowledge-based society, access to lifelong learning is a condition for economic growth of healthy and cohesive society (Co-financing lifelong education, OECD, 2004). Here the question arises of how to ensure an appropriate level of investment in lifelong learning at different governmental levels (municipal and national) and consequently also in the education of elderly adults; how to fairly distribute chances to learn among different adult age groups; and how to create out of a predominantly maintained group of the elderly a group firmly integrated into society.

The effects of educating elderly adults are demonstrated in their extensive contribution to local, economic and social development; they can be seen in their personal growth and also in consequent growth of knowledge in other generations, This is only partly true because the transfer of knowledge goes both ways from older to younger generations and vice versa resulting in their common constructing new knowledge and better skills. This can also result in a marked easing of the burden on various national and local budget items. Namely, older people who progress, and who gain a better understanding of themselves and the world through education, transform themselves from a “social burden” into an integrated group participating significantly in the advancement of all.

To date adult education has to a large extent been aimed primarily at those who in one way or another already had a better position in society, mostly employed university graduates. And if societies do not succeed in increasing the participation of de-privileged social groups in lifelong learning, it might actually happen that the lifelong learning policy will further increase social differences, no matter how well-conceived it is.

There are many barriers to the education of older people. The place of living and the discourse around an older person are just some of them. But education is needed if one wants to broaden one’s social network If one wants to open it up, if one wants to include in such networks younger people which is s conditio sine qua non for being integrated in the society. But then, not just any type of education is good for older people. It has to be ambitious, backed by research and performed by well educated mentors., as to have also real l effects on one’s personality and to poduce important social returns.

Financing is one of the fundamental political levers to tackle these changes. Representatives of the third age universities at the Colloquium have drawn attention to the fact that the area of educating older adults -older people are now the largest social group in Slovenia- requires a changed policy or policies.

There is a need for extensive empirical research to measure the impact of this education on economic growth and social cohesion, and at the same time to enable further formulation of the concept and application of findings in practice.

Furthermore, there is a need for measures that will enable budget support, which will (help to) ensure continuity of this education. Given the scope of the programme and the number of participants, mentors and volunteers, the third age universities are in fact changing into barely manageable (semi-)institutions. Therefore on mere funds obtained through contracts, and through performing additional work to suit the changing whims and needs of finance providers. Their activity is permanent and extensive, it meets professional criteria and cannot rely merely on extensive voluntary work and occasional, uncertain and negligibly low co-funding. Moreover, an asymmetry arises here, whereby the effects of educating older people are enjoyed to a large extent by the local community, while the co-financing from municipalities is inappropriately low.

At the Colloquium in Ajdovšèina, representatives of the third age universities declared that they were preparing an extensive public campaign to contribute towards understanding the importance of educating older people for all generations and for economic and social development.

Dr. Dušana Findeisen (dusana.findeisen@guest.arnes.si), The Slovenian Third Age University and Faculty Of Arts, Department Of Pedagogy And Andragogy

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