Older students shying away from free university education

By Ariel Teplitsky

Colin Richardson missed the chance to attend university in his youth.

In his early teens in London, England, his life was interrupted by the Second World War. He later enlisted in the military. When the war ended in 1945, he only had time to attend night classes, and never got a degree.

Today he is making up for lost time. At 72, Richardson is in his third year of a bachelor of arts program at the University of Ottawa. Like others, he is taking advantage of a government subsidy that provides free tuition for seniors.

“I think it’s one of the best deals that Canada could give anybody. It really is,” says Richardson, a retired public servant. “I’ve got a very limited income — it seems to be a great way to spend my retirement.”

Richardson says he’s surprised there aren’t more taking advantage of the deal. Carleton University’s tuition for seniors amounts to a miniscule administrative charge of $2.50 for each half-credit course that would normally cost hundreds. But last year at Carleton, out of 17,541 students, only 391 were 50 or older.

As Canada’s population ages and people retire at a younger age, many feel it is necessary to maintain contact between generations. Going back to school is one method to fill this chasm.

Richardson says although there are few older students, he feels welcome at the campus. “I meet other students all over the place,” he says. “And they know me, of course, better than I know them, because I stand out being old. I meet them at bus stops and in supermarkets and they come up, ‘so how did you get on in the exam?’ or things like that. And half the time I don’t even know who it is.”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes. I enjoy it . . . After 40 years without going to school, it’s just a new challenge,” echoes Maurice Blais, 56, who recently retired from his job at a credit union. He is now studying full-time for a bachelor degree in theology at University of Ottawa.

“When I was working the challenge was with learning computers, now it’s challenging with young kids,” Blais says. “I’m learning from them, and I think they’re learning from me too.”

Blais says his life experience can benefit others in the class. “With the experience I have, they’ve never lived it yet. They’ve never experienced what I’ve done for 40-some years.”

Blais says he plans on getting a master’s degree once he graduates from his current program.

One innovative program aims to bridge the generation gap by pairing students with older volunteers.

Lifelong Learning for Older Adults was set up by Algonquin College’s health sciences program in 1995 with 10 senior volunteers.

Today, there are about 175 volunteers. Together with the younger students, they take part in panel discussions on aging, health and lifestyle issues.

There are also seminars, tutoring and health consultations. Everything is geared toward promoting understanding between generations.

“It makes the students more sensitive to the needs of older people, and it also works in the reverse, where older people become more sensitive to the needs of younger people,” says Catherine Mason, president of Lifelong Learning.

The students “start out being quite nervous, because they’ve never been in that situation before. The idea was to allow them an opportunity to meet well, active older adults as opposed to people who were in institutions prior to that time.”

As part of the activities, some volunteers may discuss their own experience with diseases such as diabetes, or submit to a health examination by first-year students.

“We kind of act as their patient in some instances,” says Mason. “We go into the labs with them and they do health assessments on us and they come back with a final report on things we could do to improve our lifestyle.”

Mason says there is a need for programs like this, where older people can become more involved in the lives of the young.

“It gives both generations an opportunity to learn to be comfortable with each other, and to learn that we have a lot more similarities than we do differences.”