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Earlier this spring I attended my mother-in-law’s graduation ceremony at the University of Buckingham, where she was being awarded an MA in history of art.
The individual chosen to address his fellow graduands was the retired British judge Sir Oliver Popplewell, who chaired the inquiry into the Bradford City stadium fire and presided over the libel case that led to the former UK minister Jonathan Aitken going to prison for perjury.
The 88-year-old was collecting nothing less than his fifth degree, a masters in military history. His speech began with a joke, recounting how, when embarking on his philosophy, politics and economics degree at Oxford, he was given a lecture on it being merely a prelude to a larger obligation — the solemn duty of giving back to the community. The punchline: he was in his mid-seventies at the time and had rather felt that he was all done on the giving-back front.
It was hard not to be inspired. Sir Oliver started accumulating degrees in 1950 with a BA in law at Cambridge, which was followed by an LLB at the same university (his other degree is a masters in the history of international relations from the London School of Economics).
Likewise, the energy of the twentysomethings picking up their first degrees was stirring, especially the Bosnians who had come over as part of a partnership between Buckingham and the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology. Yet the relative lack of fortysomethings and fiftysomethings in gowns and mortar boards meant that there was also something slightly depressing about the occasion.
Perhaps it was self-interest on my part as I am a member of the forty-something group myself, but it strongly suggested that education now straddles two age groups — young adults and the retired. For the former, it is a means to advancement; for the latter, it is a noble leisure pursuit.
For the dream of life-long learning to be realised fully, those in the 35-60 age group must also be given the opportunity to refine and revise their skills throughout their careers, which could well stretch into their seventies.
This is not happening enough. Executive education has traditionally been one niche in which the middle aged have been able to polish their skills. But the supercharged intensity of the modern office makes it hard to get away from daily duties.
Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, ruefully observes that its MBA graduates have a lifetime entitlement to come back and sit in on any class — but they almost never find the time. “People don’t take me up on it because they are busy,” he says.
Likewise, Harvard Business School’s venerable Advanced Management Program for executives used to last 13 weeks but needed to be condensed to a more manageable eight weeks (at a cost of about $80,000 a course nowadays).
Meanwhile, a report by the UK’s Institute of Directors in April illustrated how patchy the provision of education to mid-career staff is across the workforce, rather than just at the top of the hierarchy. It pointed out that UK company spending on in-work training had declined by between a quarter and a half since the 1990s, albeit with a bit of an uptick recently.
Would-be mature students are turned off by the sheer difficulty of fitting formal study into their busy lives, the report observed, adding that businesses were understandably keen to reduce spending on education.
The IoD recommended tax breaks to encourage companies to allow staff to keep learning — with even bigger incentives dangled in front of smaller employers that can find it especially difficult to let workers take time out to study for even the odd day or two.
That might help. But technology, another preoccupation of the IoD report, is likely to help more. The internet is allowing new and old educational providers to experiment with ways of teaching that are better attuned to today’s working patterns.
The changes it will fashion could be evolutionary or they could blow the whole system apart and replace it with something radically different. Sir Anthony Seldon, the University of Buckingham’s reformist vice-chancellor, feels that significant change is necessary.
While we wait to see how the trend plays out, I can only hope that his institution keeps offering its masters in garden history. On the graduation day I attended, it was one of the courses where participation was most skewed towards the over-60s.
Good for them — my wife would love to follow suit when she retires from the stresses of executive life.