Brenda Gourley: We must plan now for a demographic shift

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Understanding demographics is key to the success of any institution because it alerts us to the impacts of change and the patterns of future demand.

Understanding demographics is key to the success of any institution because it alerts us to the impacts of change and the patterns of future demand. Dr Joseph Chamie, former Director of the United Nations Population Division, an expert on demographics, outlined some key trends for a recent Open University Strategic Forum.

The world's population currently stands at around six billion. High-end UN estimates put this figure at 11 billion by 2050, with a low estimate of 8 billion. This growth will not take place equally throughout the world, however. Fertility rates in the developing world are significantly higher than those in the developed world, with India providing 21 per cent of the global population increase and China 12 per cent. In the UK a low estimate is that the population remains at 60 million by 2050 and a high estimate is growth to 74 million. If the UK was to allow no immigration during this period estimates a fall to 53 million.

Of more concern than the total population is its age profile. In the UK in 2000, the median age was 38, in 2050 it is predicted that it will be 44. Alongside this the levels of 15-24 year olds in the UK had fallen from 16 per cent in 1990 and it is estimated they will be as low as 11 per cent in 2050. These dramatic changes will have significant implications for pensions, patterns of work and for retirement age.

It is against this background that universities must operate and plan. There will be implications for almost every aspect of what we do, including research, curriculum and student support.

People are going to have to train for a number of jobs throughout their lives. There will be increased demand for re-skilling and lifelong learning among older people who will need to remain economically active while they do so. Universities must offer provision for lifelong learning, and our curriculum must become increasingly vocational.

The reality of the situation is that the UK and other industrially developed nations are likely to encourage immigration to increase the numbers of young workers paying taxes to support an ageing population. History, and indeed the current political climate, shows us that this is unlikely to be a popular step in some quarters. Universities should help by informing public debate on these issues.

The OU, as a national education provider, is well placed to help tackle the demographic challenges of the future. Our ability to educate on a large scale has been demonstrated, and we already serve students of all ages. The Open University stands ready to meet the challenges of a very different future.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor of The Open University

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