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Chinese seniors' thirst for knowledge stresses system

By HE QI in Shanghai | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-01-24 09:07

Senior students study at the main campus of Shanghai University for the Elderly on Nantangbang Road before the pandemic. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

After retiring, Wang Houqin enrolled as a student at Shanghai University for the Elderly's Songjiang district campus, hoping to expand his cultural knowledge and impress his family with new culinary skills.

The 67-year-old has taken courses in literary appreciation, calligraphy and learned how to cook traditional dim sum and Western-style desserts. His baking has improved to the point where his granddaughter loves his cakes and bread.

Wang wants to take more courses, but due to booming demand from China's senior citizens for education services his choices are contracting. His university has had to place restrictions on classes and the length of enrollment.

"I've taken many courses, but now everyone is limited to choose two courses per semester and they need to finish school in two years," Wang said. "I can't sign up for the same class, but I can share the valuable educational resources with other seniors," he added.

As an example of the strong demand, Wang said a literary appreciation class of the Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansions, which only had 35 spots open, had double the applicants. Half the students were forced to watch a videotape of the lecture, he said.

The majority of the university's classes for the elderly provide training, skills coaching or cultural education.

Fang Yi, who teaches vocals singing, piano, and fundamentals of music at the university, said students are able to obtain the equivalent of a junior college degree in four majors: vocal music performance; piano music performance; photography and healthcare. "After graduation, they can continue to study as an undergraduate or become a teacher in other branches of Shanghai University for the Elderly," Fang said.

While education services for China's elderly have improved in recent years, demand still outstrips what is on offer.

The soaring growth in education for the elderly is reflected in the China Senior Education Development Report (2019-2020), jointly published by The Open University for Senior Citizens and the China Commerce and Trade Press on Oct 19.

The report said the number of institutes for seniors in China reached 76,296 by the end of 2019, an increase of 14,135 over 2017. The number of senior students increased by 2.75 million to 10.88 million over the same period.

Also, the number of registered online elderly students reached 3.87 million in 2019, compared with 2.29 million in 2017, the report said.

Shanghai is China's first city to be classified as an aging society. According to the Shanghai municipal government, 5.34 million people age 60 or older accounted for 36.1 percent of the registered population at the end of 2020.

The rapid increase in China's elderly population and the growing demand for a better quality of life have resulted in a spike in the number of institutes such as the Shanghai University for the Elderly, the largest such institution in the city. Established in 1985, the university has two main campuses and 10 departments offering more than 260 courses to about 15,000 students.

The departments include calligraphy and painting, foreign languages, piano, computer training, literature and international culture. The university also has 21 branches that offer about 3,000 classes and 1,000 courses and accept 100,000 students a semester.

Fang said the upward trend in demand for courses is obvious. When students had to register on-site for a course they would start lining up before dawn on campus. "After changing to online registration, the enrollment of a class is full within 10 seconds," she said.

Fang teaches 12 classes a week at the two campuses, and each class has 20 to 40 students. She said the number of offline students decreased after the pandemic.

The rise in education for seniors has also been accompanied by growing demand for teaching material, Fang said. "I'm currently editing one textbook and participating in the compilation of six," she said.

The university also advocates seniors broaden their knowledge of digital technology, which has practical application in areas such as using health codes, Fang said.

The success of building a learning environment for the elderly has also attracted many scholars and experts to visit the university and observe its methods. So far, more than 1,400 guests from over 20 countries have visited.

"The people in Shanghai have a great desire for cultural literacy and have strong national self-esteem," Fang said, adding that the government's support has laid a cornerstone for the development of elderly education in Shanghai.

Although the university for the elderly is relatively successful in Shanghai, it still faces many challenges. One is the problem of balancing the lesson when it is being delivered to both online and offline students.

"In addition, the number of places available in schools is still in short supply. There are too many new students, and previous students are unwilling to go. Future challenges will intensify and will need to be faced and overcome," Fang said.

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