There is no single higher education program for the elderly in Germany, instead they are offered three models to choose from. The first is free listeners who can attend lectures and seminars on individual subjects. The second is programs with mandatory exams in certain subjects and the issuance of certificates. And the third model – full-time and part-time forms of education at the bachelor’s and master’s programs. According to the German Association of Retired Persons with Higher Education (Akademische Verein der Senioren in Deutschland, AVDS), this is the smallest group of about 5,000 students nationwide. It is followed by certificate training, with around 17,000 participants, and the largest group of people participating as free-listeners. There are about 36,000 of them across the country. Depending on the universities and the number of lecture and seminar hours, the cost for free-lecturers varies from 40 to 240 euros per semester.

Why do pensioners want to study?

“One of the factors that explain older people’s interest in going to university is that they can get additional education that is in their interests, without being overburdened like young people who are learning a future profession,” says Renate Frech, founder of the internet portal for people of retirement age, in an interview with DW. This service provides information services for older people in various fields, including education, and works under the slogan: “It’s better to find quickly than to look for long.”

According to Frech, university education for pensioners is good because it gives freedom of choice. Older students decide for themselves how long they want to study, whether they will receive a diploma. And finally, the third decisive factor is the ability to communicate with young people. “The benefits of sharing knowledge and experience between different generations in the same audience should not be underestimated. That’s why many pensioners are more likely to choose regular universities for further education,” emphasizes Renate Frech, 70-year-old.

Although older people can attend most universities in the country on an equal footing with young people, the European Centre for University Education (Europäisches Zentrum für Universitäre Studien, EZUS) opened for them in 2006 in Bad Meinberg. Each year, 35 trainees aged 50 to 80 years take two-year courses divided into seven-week training modules. Older people study subjects such as history, health, politics, theology, social, economic and natural sciences, art, and music. On Thursdays and Fridays, attendance is mandatory. For those who cannot take part in face-to-face training, there are distance learning courses. Instead of higher education diplomas, graduates receive certificates confirming that they have passed examinations in certain subjects. And paper writing service helps to prepare and pass the exams. Tuition fees here are higher than in conventional universities and are 1200 euros per year.

The University of Cologne — Mecca for free-listeners

The University of Cologne is ahead of many universities in the country by the number of students over fifty. “In the winter semester 2018-2019, 1149 people were registered at our university as free-listed pensioners. They include 639 men and 510 women. In addition, there are exactly 600 students over fifty years of age enrolled in regular full-time bachelor’s and master’s degree programs,” Anne Löhr, Head of Student Coordination at DW, explains in an interview.

At the same time, she pointed out that the average age of students over 50 studying in the regular program is 56 and a half years, while that of freelance students of retirement age is 68.8. “Based on an analysis of data from the last ten years, we have come to the conclusion that humanities such as art history, philosophy, and sociology are our favorite subjects for students of retirement age,” notes Anne Löhr.