Interest in U3A on the Rise – 50 Thousand Elderly Enrolled

The number of elderly persons interested in universities of the third age has been steadily rising; there are over 50 thousand currently enrolled in 22 public universities. The growing interest in this type of education has been accompanied by an expansion in the courses on offer. In addition to the perennial favorites such as psychology, law or English studies, the universities have come up with courses on subjects like calligraphy, health care, and food science.

The lecture halls of Czech universities have been filling with students in their retirement age. The incessant growth of the interest in U3A has prompted universities to broaden the scope of the courses offered to the elderly students.

Whereas in 2010 Czech universities registered about 30 thousand students in the retirement and pre-retirement age, more than 50 thousand were enrolled in third-age university programmes in 2017. The number of courses on offer has followed the same developmental curve, rising from 800 courses in 2010 to over 1400 in 2017. For example, over the past ten years, the number of elderly students attending courses at Charles University doubled from four thousand in 2007 to eight thousand in 2017. The number of third-age students at the Czech Technical University in Prague rose from 118 in 2008 to 910 over the same period, and today all eight faculties of the Czech Technical University and three of its institutes offer courses for the elderly. Smaller universities have also witnessed the same trend. In 2008, less than seven hundred attended third-age university classes at the University of Hradec Králové, and as of today, this number has increased to almost one thousand.  

The universities have already noted the trend and have responded to the demand by upscaling the number of courses on offer. “Given the growing interest in this type of education, we may certainly expect continuing investments into the future development of such programmes” commented Roman Prokop, the president of the Association of Universities of 3rd Ages and the Vice-Rector of the Tomas Bata University in Zlín (TBU), one of the twenty two public universities in the Czech Republic that have been offering U3A study programmes.

Waning IT, Waxing Psyche

Speaking of the TBU, the most popular courses among the elderly over the long run include psychology and healthcare, but in recent years, third-age students have shown an increasing interest in Food Quality and Cosmetics. “Last year, we have offered a course on psychology, physiology, and lifestyle for the senior and elderly, and the response was overwhelming – over one hundred and twenty enrollees. To accommodate all the students, we had to split the students into two study groups,” prof. Prokop comments enthusiastically. As a result, this year the university organized a follow-up course on the psychology of the third age.

The Tomas Bata University in Zlin has noted a decrease of interest in computer and IT literacy courses. Instead, attendees have been flocking to English language courses in ever larger numbers; they are interested in courses for real beginners right through to English conversation classes. The interest in visual art courses has not seen any signs of decline either; students are especially interested in drawing, painting, and calligraphy.

Charles University, Prague, offers courses in a wide range of medical fields. Law and the theory and practice of physical education of the elderly are also called for. The Faculty of Physical Education and Sport now offers a skiing course in the Krkonoše Mountains for U3A students and it has proved to be very popular. “Humanities are in the lead when it comes to the various University of the Third Age programmes offered by Charles University, followed by psychology, history and visual art classes,” says Vaclav Hájek, Charles University spokesperson.

Student Credit Books and Graduation Ceremonies

Studying at a third-age university in many ways resembles the study programmes for graduate students. Students attend lectures at least twice a week, mostly in the afternoons. A course of study is usually organised over one to four terms.

Students have to pass exams and the results of the exams are recorded in their credit books. Regular attendance is required to pass the course and in some classes, students also have to write a paper or pass a written test.

Graduates of a university of the third age do not receive a diploma or a university degree, because U3A is not acknowledged as formal tertiary education under Czech law. But even so, students do not miss out on a graduation ceremony. At the end of each academic year, universities organise a ceremonial convocation where U3A students receive their certificates while observing all formal rituals available to regular university graduates.

At the University of Hradec Kralove, graduation certificates are awarded to all students who have attended at least one-half of all the classes and who have satisfied other course requirements, such as them having passed the test or oral exam, written a paper and so forth.

Secondary School Graduation Exam not Required

The admission terms for U3A students are not very stringent. Most universities welcome elderly people over 55 or 60 years of age. Many universities also require that students have completed their secondary education. “Sometimes, we also admit senior citizens who have not passed their secondary school graduation exams but who have established their long-term interest in a particular field of study,” explains Mr. Hájek from Charles University.

“In addition to individual students, we frequently have married couples attending our U3A classes. Although most of the students are women, there has been a growing number of male attendees. There is no limit on the age of U3A students, and the courses are open also to persons with various physical disabilities and special needs,” explains Klára Tesaříková Čermákova, the head of the Department of Continuing Education from Palacký University in Olomouc. One of the youngest U3A students is a twenty-seven-year-old woman on a full disability pension.

For many of the graduates of U3A classes, studying at a university of the third age has become a common part of their daily routine. “Our former U3A students frequently return to enrol in other classes and courses. This continuing interest on their part has been a great incentive for expanding the range of our classes,” adds Mrs. Tesaříková Čermáková.

The fees charged for U3A study programmes differ from university to university, but generally, they are largely symbolical. For example, the Czech Technical University admits students based on an electronic admission letter and charges them from CZK 500 to CZK 850 per term.

“In what concerns the U3A programme, our fees run in the range of hundreds of Czech crowns depending on the type of course. The fee for a lecture cycle for the entire academic year is 400 Czech crowns, a course with lectures and seminars costs 800 Czech crowns for most classes and programmes. The highest fee we charge is 1800 Czech crowns per academic year for an art course; the fee is higher because it covers the costs of art supplies,” explains Lenka Česáková from the U3A Administration Center of the University of Hradec Králové.

Eager and Enthusiastic

Courses offered as part of the U3A programmes are taught by both the professors and associate professors who teach the “regular” classes, and by various professionals and experts, who are invited by the universities to prepare lectures for the elderly students. “In my experience, elderly students are a very pleasant audience to lecture to. They are enthusiastic, highly motivated and concentrated,” Mrs. Tesaříkova Čermáková concludes with a smile.

Psychologist and coach Petra Vávrova and a lecturer of the social psychology studies at Palacký University in Olomouc is one of the teachers involved in the university’s U3A study programmes. She lectures the psychology of communication, mental hygiene and stress management. “I started with a group of twenty five students, today we have almost sixty in each year. Teaching elderly students is interesting from a professional perspective and carries with it a much appreciated value,” says Mrs. Vávrová. She commends her students for being very attentive and eager for knowledge. She also acknowledges that as a group they constitute a rather diverse and complex audience. “They come from different walks of life, they differ as to their profession, interest, and age, but together they all share a lifetime of experience, whether they are 55 or 85. Some already come prepared with extensive knowledge of the field. For others, this is their first encounter with psychology. It certainly is not easy to prepare the classes, but it is very enriching and fulfilling to teach them,” explains Mrs. Vávrová.

Quo vadimus

All universities engaged in the U3A programme wish to continue in the expansion of their courses and classes, particularly the range of the topics on offer. The Ministry of Education closely cooperates with the Association of Universities of the 3rd Ages.

For the year 2020, the Association and the Ministry plan to improve the availability of U3A education, particularly by extending their support to extramural education, that is education facilitated outside regular university premises, by engaging local organisations, municipal libraries, and social centres. “We would like to adjust the contents and the form of this type of education to meet the needs of the elderly, and we would like to promote it as a part of continuous learning in public media, while maintaining the transparency and the predictability of the future development of U3A programmes and their funding,” the spokeswoman of the Ministry of Education Aneta Lednova explained to our inquiry. In addition to classical lectures, the University of the third age also intends to introduce a wide range of e-learning courses.