SEVERAL times a year, groups of silver-haired Chinese people camp out overnight. They do so in order to get prime spots to register for places at the country’s universities for the elderly. Since 1983, when China’s first such school opened, 70,000 more have cropped up across the country. They offer courses in pursuits like dancing, online shopping or English for would-be-travellers, as well as in more traditional academic disciplines. Last year these universities enrolled a combined 8m students—just over 3% of China’s cohort of over-60s. At the Shanghai University for the Elderly, the average age of students is 65-70
The idea of a university for the elderly is not new. The University of the Third Age movement, named for the final third of life, began in France in 1973. It then spread across Europe and became especially popular in Britain. China’s first elderly universities were aimed at veteran Communist Party cadres. Today some of the schools are reserved for retired civil servants, but others are open to all. Most are government-funded; the average cost of fees is 200 yuan ($31) per term.
Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.
Demand is high and will only grow. In Shanghai, one in every six interested students is able to enrol; in Hangzhou, it is just one in 16. Several schools have adopted lottery systems, and others are first-come-first-served. The number of Chinese people aged 60 and over is projected to increase from 241m to 487m, or almost 35% of all Chinese citizens, by 2050. China has the world’s fastest-ageing population. The one-child-per-couple policy—which was in place from 1979 to 2016—contributed to the demographic imbalance. It resulted in the “4-2-1 phenomenon”, which sees one child trying to look after two parents and four grandparents.
The government aims to have one elderly university in every county by 2020. After all, educating seniors makes practical sense: it helps to improve memory and to fight loneliness, which damages health and drives up suicide rates. It is also in line with Confucian thought, which teaches that learning is a lifelong virtue. But these schools will not fix all the difficulties caused by China’s ageing population. They are no replacement for formal medical care, especially for poor Chinese. They do not address the government’s astronomical social-security bill. And they do not make up for a labour shortage. To do that, the government has considered raising the retirement age (which is 55 or 50 for women depending on sector, and 60 for men). In the meantime, senior students have taken to heart from Mao Zedong’s idiom: “Study hard and every day you will improve.”