Returning to education: learning options for retirees

In an ageing population, retirement isn’t what it once was. Far from settling for an outdated stereotype of a pensioner lifestyle, today’s retirees are looking for new challenges, and for some that means a return to education.

Going ‘back to school’ is an increasingly popular move for a number of reasons. For some, retirement frees up time to pursue a lifelong passion to study a subject or ambition to learn a new skill. Others see it as a way to use spare time constructively – for the mental challenge, or simply for fun.

Some too have found that their pension pot needs topping up, and are seeking to retrain or upskill in preparation for re-entering the workforce. Whatever your motivation there are many paths you can take, from informal classes to university education.

What you need to know

What’s right for you?

There’s a great deal of flexibility in terms of how you want to learn. Many providers offer part-time, day, weekend, online and distance learning classes so your education can fit in with your lifestyle and location. Bear in mind online and distance learning options may not be the best choice for those keen to widen their social circle.

If you’re shopping around for courses that you might enjoy, contact your local council for a list of adult learner programmes in your area. Consider what each might offer you – for example, photography classes are a popular choice, IT courses can keep your digital skills up to speed, while yoga classes offer health benefits. If you’re thinking of travelling in your retirement years a language could be a great way to enrich that experience. You could even do a TEFL course and teach English overseas, giving you the potential to earn and see the world.

Formal education

Some retirees find the prospect of going back into higher education or university a little daunting, but most academic institutions welcome mature students for their commitment, experience and skills.

Entry requirements vary enormously, but many have a flexible approach that takes both life and work experience into consideration. If there’s a course you want to do a chat with the admissions department can be hugely beneficial – they can help you establish whether undertaking an Access to Higher Education Diploma could be worthwhile preparation, for example.

If you’re open to the idea of distance learning, the Open University can be an excellent option, and for undergraduate courses you typically don’t need formal qualifications to enrol.

Finding funding

Costs vary significantly with different types of course, so you’ll need to consider what you want to achieve, what you’re able or willing to pay and what funding support might be available to you.

There may be grants or bursaries you can access. This can depend on where in the UK you live, what kind of course you want to do and what (if any) financial support you’ve had for education in the past. For formal education, the NUS has some great pointers for accessing student funding.

UCAS offers a helpful Mature Students’ Guide, with tips and advice on how to select, apply and fund higher education courses.

You might also want to talk to your bank about financial planning and funding solutions that suit your circumstances.

Free and budget-friendly options

Learning needn’t be expensive, of course. Your local authority or local library is a useful starting point if you’re looking for low-cost, or even free, classes. And if you have your eye on a specific course, be sure to check whether concessions are available for retirees.

If you don’t need a formal qualification, you can access Open University learning materials through OpenLearn, free of charge.

Another option is the University of the Third Age (U3A), a learning network of retired/semi-retired people that offers informal classes and study groups run by volunteers.

Your next steps

Questions to consider:

  1. Are you learning for fun, or to upskill for a job?
  2. Do you want – or need – a formal qualification?
  3. Would you prefer a full time or part time course, or an occasional class? 
  4. Is the social aspect important to you?
  5. How will you fund your choice?

Help and support

If you’re thinking about returning to education we can help you consider the financial implications with a free personal review.

Find out more

The National Careers Service has a handy search tool to look for courses, as well as career-minded advice and support.

Age UK provides useful information to help the over 50s consider education and training options.

Looking to put new skills to work for a good cause? REACH connects skilled volunteers with volunteering organisations.

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