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A. A. Zych,

Faculty of Education, University of Lower Silesia, 

Wrocław, Poland


        In the times of modern technology and electronic education, it may be worth pursuing the dream of open universities for aging and old people. The article presents the assumptions, process and preliminary conclusions from the project entitled «Moscow Silver University» as part of the «Moscow Longevity» programme funded in February 2018 by Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin. The Moscow longevity programme is addressed to residents of Moscow in old age, who wanted to lead an active lifestyle and use all possibilities of self-realization. The basic goals of this project include enabling pensioners to live a full life, finding new friends and completing free time with useful activities, developing interests. The project was developed taking into account the best international practices, with the participation of experts in the field of psychology and gerontology, sport, art and culture. This type of pilot study has largely determined the sphere of both the needs and interests as well as the educational and life aspirations of the Moscow pensioners.

In this paper the author has an assessment of the functioning of the Polish universities of the third age (UTA) from the point of view of critical educational gerontology.  An attempt is made to answer the following questions: what is the future of the UTA in Poland and are we watching their twilight in the second decade of the 21st century?

 In conclusion, the author states that the conception of the silver university, in the frame of the «senior» policy, may become alternative for the Polish solutions.


Keywords: critical educational gerontology; silver university; social policy for older people; university of the third age.


For citation: Zych A. A. Silver university as an alternative for the Polish solutions // Systems psychology and sociology. 2019. № 1 (29). P. 84-99




Any system that is not supported from the outside, degenerates... Wiesław Łukaszewski (born 1940)

The first premise of this sketch: «This also applies to our memory. If you do not repeat, do not process, do not remember — you zone off» [6], and the second premise is Max Bürger’s (1885– 1966) concept of biomorphism. He suggested that in the biochemical sense, the individual is subject to the process of aging day by day. In his opinion, a man is aging from the moment of conception and this phenomenon is of a general cosmic nature, in this sense «inanimate» matter also grows old. When I reach for my notes from years ago, I perceive how they «have grown old» and do not fit into our times. I refer these considerations to the beautiful idea from 45 years ago, which is the university of the third age (UTA). The present article is an attempt to answer the most important questions:

– What is the future of UTA in Poland?

– Do we observe their twilight in the second decade of the 21st century?


Universities of the third age — reflections of critical educational gerontology


At the beginning of the present century I wrote: In satisfying the psychological, social, cultural, educational, as well as existential and spiritual needs of the outgoing generation a great number of educational, religious and governmental institutions, and even the media, can participate. For example, senior centres, resorts and clubs, open and third age universities, reading clubs for adults and their variations. However, the social movement of the universities of the third age has a special role to play. It was launched in 1973 by the French lawyer Pierre Vellas (1924–2005), two years later, Halina Szwarc (1923–2002) transferred this idea to Poland. UTA is a kind of learning community, organized by and for people who want to be active in retirement. This form of the education of aging and elderly people plays an important role in gerontological prophylaxis and rehabilitation because the purpose of the «University of Leisure Time» is to keep up the spirit of the elderly, involve them in valuable and noble activities and improve their living conditions through mental, intellectual and physical activation, include the elderly in the system of permanent education, as well as teach the «art of life» in the third age through implementation of gerontological prophylaxis [15].

When Vellas created in Toulouse the first such facility for aging and elderly people its participants were individuals who remembered the first World War, the Wall Street crash in 1929, the great economic crisis in the seemingly beautiful 1930s, and also the horrors of World War II. However, soon the UTA in Poland will admit people from the generation of the Polish anti-Communist riots in December 1970 and the Polish «Solidarity», brought up in the era of the Internet, satellite communications, advanced technology. They are highly educated and have much higher aspirations and needs, and the academic community should be prepared for this huge cultural leap. They may not be satisfied by traditional academic lectures, even those delivered by outstanding professors, supported by media presentations, not to mention courses of creating batik fabrics and embroidery courses, or even a course of creating fancy tatting patterns, recreational gymnastics and rehabilitation with «slow dance for health», or tai chi, and aerobics, and the courses of salsa and flamenco... It will be necessary to be a retirement planning policy at the pre-retirement stage. It will be necessary to develop for the aging and elderly people programmes of legal counselling, advice on consumer and claim issues, and finally provision of know-how of new information and media technologies and media, including computer use, Internet and e-mail application. We should not forget about the important personality competences — I mean not only the development of assertiveness and empathy, the ability to accept elderly people as they are in order not to leave them alone and not let them feel lonely. It is also of paramount importance to develop internal self-control in elderly people. And finally, it is the human problem of the formation of effective strategies to cope not only with the loss of beauty and health, disability and decrepitude, but above all with the most painful loss of the nearest people with whom one often lived almost half a century… [16].

When I attended a few years ago an interesting seminar in Lubin, not far from Wroclaw, I heard with some surprise information announced with some pride that in one of the third-age universities one has to wait a few years for a place, one is expected to pass a qualifying interview, and that UTA is not open for everyone. Thus, this form of education of the aging and elderly is becoming more and more elitist, and despite the existence of over 600 third-age universities, most of the aging Poles — especially those living in villages and small towns — have no possibility of participation by their own choice in this form of lifelong education.

What is worse, this beautiful idea is subjected — to a large extent — to justifiable criticism. Wiesław Łukaszewski says that universities of the third age are an embarrassment. They are ghettos of pensioners who cannot spoil anything anymore, so let them study for free a knowledge that is not useful for the young. Let them paint unwanted pictures or make vases of clay [...]. We should not call them universities because it’s a hoax. What kind of university is it? What kind of courses do they offer? This is just an unappetizing game of appearances. If we really want to give old people an equal chance for education, let each city sponsor for a few of them a course of real study in a real university. Give them a chance to test their intellectual capacity, which is an amazing experience. This is sometimes the case in Sweden and the USA. There, in university classrooms, 70-year olds and 18-year-olds sit together in the same classrooms. They are fellow students. In Poland a measure of success of our old «students» is making clay pots. Because something has to be done, you have to keep old folks busy so they stop bothering and don’t want anything from you. And when they start thinking too much, then we tell them to make another tapestry or we let them make a woolen beret. For a grandson, of course, not, God forbid, for an exhibition [7].

Representatives of contemporary, critical educational gerontology extend this list of shadows that begin to fall on this form of education of aging and old people. It should be agreed with Marvin Formosa (born 1972) that the majority of educational programmes for aging and old people, undertaken by third age universities (UTA), do not fulfill the basic function of satisfying the needs of older people, but are addressed only to «social elite» [1]. Agnieszka Nowicka drew attention to the elitism of this form of education of aging and old people, saying: «Despite the systematically growing number of universities of the third age in our country (now we have more than 600, forgetting that the quantity does not change into quality — A. A. Z. note) they still constitute peculiar clusters of elites of elders because they bring together about 25,000 participants, i. e. about 0.3 % of the group of retirees and pensioners. The exclusivity of these institutions also lies in the fact that they bring together people with at least secondary education who are interested in deepening their knowledge» [8]. Similarly, Andrzej Klimczuk (born 1984) thinks that «UTA’s seem to gather some of the city’s intellectual elites. [...] The very name of the institution seems to attract potential members, “promising” the improvement of social status — catching up with those who were higher in life in the stratification structure and the opportunity to show themselves and others that one is more than an older person» [4].

In the times of modern technology and electronic education, it may be worth pursuing the dream of open universities for aging and old people, both for those who are fit and less fit, as well as for those from metropolises and small towns or villages. E-learning and m-learning systems should be used, i. e. teaching using computer networks, the Internet and / or wireless technology, e. g. in the form of personal computers, tablets, laptops and smartphones. And since I’m talking of new technologies, when I go to the websites of many UTA’s I get the message: this page is not available. [File not found] or Error [Error 404]. Incidentally, I find a beautiful definition of a smartphone in the Pedagogical Dictionary for parents and teachers lost in the modern world: «the autopilot of its owner, leading him or her through life according to a plan created by a nameless horde of marketing specialists» [17].

Another important issue is the feminization of UTA, while «programmes are characterized by an absolute indifference to feminist gerontological issues. The programme reflects the broad concepts, principles and priorities of men — as a result we have a situation where old women study about the society from the male point of view» [1].

There is not a rhetorical question at all: do Polish UTA’s have any offers, for example, for people with motor, visual or auditory disabilities, or for people from villages and small towns? And yet you can use sign language, manuallycoded language sign as well as audio description.

On The Science in Poland page, I read that in 2018 the Ministry of Science and Higher Education concluded the contest for support of UTA’s. «As part of the 2nd edition of the contest for support of third age universities, 49 applications were submitted to the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Co-financing for the total amount of almost PLN 6 million will receive 20 of them» [18]. And what will the money go to? For free irregular publications of the University of the Third Age, such as: The UTA Courier with a rich section of the «poetry» of UTA participants, or for free «pamphlets» on aging and old age. In the latest UTA Courier — I read with amazement in the section «On work in self-government» [9] that «university internship» stretches from four, through thirteen, up to 23 years. In a normal university, such a perpetual student would have long ago been removed from the list to make room for younger candidates, maybe that is why the UTA conducts qualification interviews (read: selective ones), and waiting for a place stretches from two to several years. Or maybe Minister Jarosław Gowin would allocate these millions (for UTA’s) to scholarships for full-time students at the «third level of maturity», maybe it would be more beneficial?

A separate issue is the small participation of older people in groups of mutual help and volunteering. Anna Zawada writes: «Unfortunately, UTA students, especially in large cities, sporadically (or not at all), engage in social work and volunteering» [13]. This opinion is confirmed by Agnieszka Szczurek, who states: «On the one hand, we can be happy that there are more and more UTA’s in Poland, but on the other hand, our country is at the infamous end when it comes to the level of social involvement of seniors» [In the cyclical studies of the Active Aging Index, 2015 ‒ Ed.] «in terms of the participation of seniors in social life, Poland is in the 28th place (out of 28!)» [12]. And since in many UTA’s there are more «recipients» [5] than «donors», the effect has been known for the last five years (2013–2017). The finale of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity was held under the clear slogan: «To save lives and health of children [...] and to provide decent medical care to seniors» [19], now only these slogans remain: for equal opportunities in the treatment of newborns (2018) and «Helping is childishly simple. Let’s play for small children and — with no offence — for the purchase of equipment for specialized children’s hospitals» (2019). The question arises, where is the «elite of UTA’s», where are these «leaders», «prometheuses», «champions»? [5], certainly not on the streets of Polish cities, and yet, if they raised money for the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity, they would collect funds for themselves — for decent medical care.

And the last fact: universities of the third age as education institutions for aging and old people are not subject to any control or accreditation, and no one really supervises either programmes or teaching methods, as well as educational, or upbringing processes conducted by them. Maybe Polish UTA’s are affected by senile decay? Of course, there are attempts to reanimate UTA’s (using departmental resources — A. A. Z. note) in the form of programmes such as, for example, the Wrocław project «UTA: Teach — Create — Support» [10]. In my opinion, Polish UTA’s are experiencing a mid-life crisis, and simply: it’s time for a change. Perhaps it is advisable to consolidate dispersed universities of the third age into senior academic centres, and instead of over 600 rugged UTA’s, let there be a hundred strong centres of senior education, and maybe an alternative to Polish solutions will be implementation within the framework of the senior policy the project of the silver university which I outline below.


New programmes — time for new opportunities!


The pilot project «Moscow longevity» (Moskovskoe dolgoletiye), bearing a significant subtitle: «Time for new possibilities!» (Vremya novih vozmozhnostey!) [20], is addressed to residents of Moscow in old age who wanted to lead an active lifestyle and use all possibilities of self-realization. It should be explained that the project is addressed to people who have exceeded the statutory retirement age, amounting to 55 years for women in Russia and 60 years for men in Russia, let us add that the average life expectancy in Russia in 2018 was 71.9 years — women 77.2 and men 66.4 (for comparison in Poland in 2017, the average age was 77.9 years — women 81.8 and men 74 years — A. A. Z. note), while the population of Moscow in 2017 was 12.2 million people, including 2.5 million pensioners, which is 1/4 of the adult population of this metropolis [21]. The discussed project was proposed in February 2018 by the Mayor of the capital, Sergei Sobyanin (born 1958). The Moscow authorities supported his initiative and from 1 March in the territorial social service centres, subscriptions for those willing to take part in the project began, with over 68,000 seniors initially applying. «Moscow longevity» from the project began to change into reality — Sergei Sobyanin announced in autumn 2018. As of today, about 100,000 Moscow residents have signed up for various types of learning circles, and actually 75 thousand take part in them. This programme is designed for those Moscow pensioners who don’t want to stay at home, who want to meet with others, find new friends, lead an active life. The basic goals of this project include enabling pensioners to live a full life, finding new friends and / or friends, and completing free time with useful activities and developing interests.

«Moscow longevity» is implemented by educational institutions, music schools, libraries, sports clubs, stadiums, parks, social centres and other organizations that are in close proximity in all districts of Moscow, e. g. over 30 parks have joined this project. Parks offer group activities in three areas: sport, leisure and creativity, as well as science and development. All classes are free. The project was developed taking into account the best international practices, with the participation of experts in the field of psychology and gerontology, sport, art and culture. Most classes are free to the public, without any restrictions, and no preparation is required. A significant part of the classes is planned for a longer period and regular participation (one or two times a week). Classes are conducted in groups of over 15 people, which gives participants new opportunities to expand their circle of friends and make new friends.

An integral part of the urban project «Moscow longevity» is the new educational project called «Moscow Silver University» [22], which was created on a strong organizational and scientific basis, which is the Moscow City University (MCU). It started its activity a little earlier, in November 2017, and its main task is to create the conditions for creative and professional development of older people, to increase the quality of their lives. The silver university gives people of retirement age the opportunity to study what they could not learn earlier due to lack of time, and who spent their youth and their adulthood mainly working and caring for the family. The curriculum was developed jointly with the Moscow Municipal Pedagogical University. By creating it, specialists based on the results of surveys conducted among elderly people, regarding their needs and expectations. This type of pilot study has largely determined the sphere of both the needs and interests as well as the educational and life aspirations of the Moscow pensioners

The organization of education at the Moscow Silver University is shown in tab. 1. Education is conducted on the organizational basis of territorial social service centers as well as educational organizations. In a calendar year, a citizen has the right to participate in one general development program or one time in one of the professional programmes.

The Moscow Silver University [MСU] programmes are implemented in two stages [11]:

The first stage involves the preparation of specialists and volunteers to work with people in the «silver age», an integral part of the lecture series: psychological aspects of increasing the effectiveness of teaching the elderly, covering the following issues:

– psychological properties of the «silver age»,

– rules of communication with elderly people as part of the educational process,

– analysis of practical situations of interaction of older people with lecturers and volunteers at the Moscow Silver University

The second stage is the implementation of programmes for educating people in the «silver age», including a series of lectures: psychological problems of the «silver age», covering the following topics:

– psychological age (how can we define it?),

– causes and variants of premature aging,

– ways of «preserving youth» for women and men, psychological aspects of prolonging life,

– how to maintain a comfortable relationship in the family? (principles of conflict-free communication with people from different age groups), and

– analysis of practical situations (case studies).

In addition, at the request of the students, training and so-called «Master classes». Here are three examples of pedagogical blocks (educational modules). General development programmes (developed by the Institute of Psychology, Sociology and Social Relations MСU):

I. Psychology of personal development in the «silver age» (duration: 36 hours). Programme description: In the process of learning, students will become familiar with the psychological characteristics of the «silver age», the basic tasks of development and the conditions for self-realization. In accordance with the learning outcomes, students will learn to analyze and manage change during the life path (making choices in the area of education, interpersonal relationships, forms of spending free time, maintaining a healthy lifestyle), reflection on self-knowledge and self-esteem.



II. Psychological problems of communication (duration: 36 hours). Issues discussed: communication techniques, non-verbal communication and verbal communication, the basics of conflict learning (conflict), conflict-free communication, communication situation management, and seeking answers to the question: how to convince the interlocutor?

III. Psychology of childhood, or how to help grandson? (duration: 36 hours). Programme description: in the process of learning, the students will get acquainted with the psychological characteristics of the child and the results of research in the field of child psychology. In accordance with the learning outcomes, students will learn to recognize and analyze the child’s mental processes, taking into account age and individual characteristics in communication and upbringing, resolving conflict situations in the family, taking into account psychological characteristics in the relationship of children with adults, and creating conditions for the child’s personal development. Issues discussed: basics of developmental psychology, trust, fear and anxiety, psychosomatics, deprivation and trauma, crises of childhood age, motivation, aggression and deviant behavior, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), crossing borders and conflicts, personal development and projection methods in psychological diagnosis.

The main result achieved so far is that every person participating in the MCU project with great pleasure participates in activities organized on the organizational basis of MCU and Moscow educational institutions. Studying psychology, classes in computer science and new technologies [23], foreign language classes (English and German), classes in general physical preparation, dance and choreotherapy or choir classes, offer pensioners not only an advantage, but also a great joy to know that in the future many discoveries and achievements await them. As part of the Silver University, the International Day of the Seniors was celebrated in Moscow (1 October 2018) — the programme included about 1,300 festival events, the continuation was the first festival «Young Old», which took place in Moscow (3–4 November 2018) [24]. Let us add that in the first year of the programme implementation, the Moscow Silver University was attended by 2,780 students.

Main advantages: 1) short-term programme (annual or biennial), which enables recruitment of new students in the following years; 2) practical preparation for specific occupations, e. g. professional programmes: «Nanny», which prepares babysitters, «puppet-maker», which helps in creating puppets and dolls, or «green areas employee», who acquires the qualifications of a gardener, a greenery maintenance worker and / or an urban greenery worker; 3) preparing seniors for mutual assistance and volunteering.




Finally, an authentic anecdote from the diary [3] of Krystyna Janda (born 1952): «An elderly couple live by helping each other in everything. One day they went for a walk. «Well, Eustachy, one more step and we’ve made it» — says Benedykta. To which Eustachy replies gratefully: «Thank you, my soul, thank you, just tell me, am I going up or down?» [2].

It is time for a conclusion. The heads of Polish universities of the third age should ask such a question. Seriously speaking, I believe that as part of the senior policy, the concept of the silver university presented in this article may become an alternative to Polish solutions.




At this point, I would like to thank cordially Professor Evgenia S. Romanova and Ass. Professor Svietlana M. Valyavko of the Moscow City University for substantive support in the form of consultations, which concerned the project of the silver university. I am also grateful to Dr. Andrzej Diniejko, D. Litt., of the University of Warsaw for the faithful translation of this article into English




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