The Age-Friendly Academy: a ‘5-95’ university in an age-friendly city

Louise Brown Nicholls, Alix McDonald and Professor Sir Harry Burns

Engage, the University of Strathclyde’s flagship programme of events taking place over one week, returned earlier last month to great acclaim. With over 60 events on offer, delegates including staff, students, external partners and members of the public had a unique opportunity to find out more about our world leading research, and discover new ways of working and collaborating together.

One of the Programme’s highlights was “The Age-Friendly Academy at Strathclyde: impacting lifelong health and wellbeing”.  The event was hosted by Alix McDonald, Head of the Centre for Lifelong Learning (CLL), and Dr Louise Nicholls, Director of the Strathclyde Ageing Network. It showed how, as a socially progressive university, Strathclyde has been embedding an age friendly ethos – a ‘place of useful learning’ open to all, regardless of age or stage in life. It also showcased the ageing-related research taking place around the University.

We’re living in an ageing society – over 65s will increase by 40% over the next 20 years – and Strathclyde is leading the charge on two fronts: research and provision.  As a member of the global network of Age-Friendly Universities, based in a WHO Age Friendly City, with a strategic theme focused on Health and Wellbeing, we are well placed to demonstrate the role that Higher Education can play in responding to the challenges and opportunities associated with an ageing demographic.

Launched in 2017 and led by the CLL, the Age-Friendly Academy brings together activities already being delivered at the University, as well as exploring new opportunities for collaboration, both internally and externally, all aimed at promoting positive ageing across the lifespan.

Teaching and Learning

The world renowned CLL delivers the largest programme of learning opportunities aimed at those over 50 in Europe, with over 2500 adult learners taking a range of classes each year. Participants are also eligible to join Strathclyde’s Learning in Later Life Students’ Association (The 3Ls), the only association of its kind in the UK.

The Centre continues to respond to such changes by expanding its daytime programme and introducing more subjects. Recognising that over 50s represent the fastest growing part of the workforce in the UK, in August last year the CLL launched The Next StAge Personal Development and Employability programme. It supports students to focus plans and set professional and personal goals for the future, as well as develop practical skills such as CV writing, interview techniques and building a social media presence.

Hear Lorraine Queen, one of our CLL students, talk about their learning experiences at the Centre

Changing perceptions

At Strathclyde we’re aiming to break down barriers and change perceptions of what a university is and who it is for. By introducing an “Open Campus” concept, CLL members can gain access to undergraduate lectures in Psychology and from the next academic year (2019/2020), will be able to join lectures in Social Policy, Politics & International Relations and English Literature.

At the lower end of the age spectrum, Samia Afzal, Educational Liaison Officer, outlined the concept of the Glasgow Children’s University, introduced by Strathclyde in 2013 as part of a national programme run by Children's University Scotland, a charity which works with partners to inspire children to take part in learning beyond the classroom.

The Glasgow network works with around 25 school members and is managed by the University of Strathclyde in partnership with Glasgow City Council.

Children's University graduation May 2019Designed to encourage family learning and raise aspirations, the CU recognises achievement which takes place outside normal school hours, including at weekends and school holidays.  Pupils gain credits through a ‘Passport to Learning’ for taking part in activities such as drama groups, sports teams or learning experiences at museums, parks and community centres as well as events such as a ‘Super Science’ day and the Faraday Stem Challenge hosted by the University.

A record 224 children, aged between five and 14, graduated at this year’s ceremony.

Research and Innovation

Dr Louise Nicholls, Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychological Sciences & Health,described how the Strathclyde Ageing Network (SAN) was set up in 2015 to share, discuss, and encourage ageing-related research throughout the University, from a variety of perspectives and disciplines.

SAN now has over 70 members, from all four faculties and professional services. Its members are committed to ageing-related research on Health & Wellbeing, including the theme of 'Living Well, Ageing Well'. Our research covers a wide range of topics, such as thinking and memory skills across the lifespan including dementia, mobility and stroke rehabilitation, digital healthcare, and the benefits of intergenerational engagement for young and older people.

SAN also supports knowledge exchange beyond the University to other academic institutions and the wider community, via public talks and external partnerships. For example, earlier this year we partnered with the Aye Write! book festival, with twenty of our academic staff leading seminars. We also aim to ensure the voice of the full demographic is heard and that our research can influence public policy.  

Working in partnership with our CLL student population offers new opportunities for collaboration in areas which celebrate the positives of ageing but address some of the challenges. Launched last year, in partnership with The 3Ls, the Age Friendly Academy Volunteer Network now has 180 members taking part in a range of University-wide volunteering opportunities or research activities, ranging from helping invigilate undergraduate exams to participating in projects such as the Sharing Childhoods 2 (SACHI2) and The Scottish Oral History Centre’s new NHS at 70 project.

At the Engage event there were a number of research-based talks, poster presentations, and demonstrations. Dr Nicholas Rattray, Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, discussed his research into the biochemistry of ageing and frailty. Dr Mario Parra Rodriguez, School of Psychological Sciences & Health, also spoke about his work in developing a Short Term Memory Binding Test, which involves remembering shape and colour combinations. The test can help early detection of dementia and identify those at risk of developing the disease. A number of research participant panels from around the University, including the SAN, have been contributing to this research. 

Intergenerational work

Alastair Wilson, School of Education, spoke about how intergenerational work helps to strengthen communities and address social inequality by devising useful responses to issues such as child attainment and loneliness in older age. For Scotland, inequality in education is a problem, with levels of attainment low for those from working class and disadvantaged backgrounds. The University’s intergenerational work is one of a number of initiatives around the world providing an innovative, research informed response to these types of challenges.

In 2006 Strathclyde developed intergenerational mentoring which saw young people in secondary school from working class backgrounds seeking to enter higher education matched with retired professionals.

Expanding the scope, the project now works with younger children and has a developed a primary school based project, again drawing on intergenerational mentoring. The ‘Help a Child Learn to Read’ initiative, launched three years ago, is now progressing in primary schools in Glasgow, again with retirees, who are trained by Strathclyde staff.  Recently featured on BBC Reporting Scotland and STV News, the Generation for Generation project, based in West Lothian primary schools and led by the School of Psychological Sciences & Health, is also investigating the range of potential benefits of this type of project.

These relationship-based initiatives see trusted partnerships build over time, with older people being a source of the social and cultural capitals that young people need in order to succeed. They are also paving the way for a better, more local form of community based support.

Approximately 200 young people from the programme have now gone into HE, with a significant number at Strathclyde entering Engineering, Architecture, Business and Teaching.

Intergenerational Mentoring Network case study: Gordon and EmmaThe concept of intergenerational mentoring is gaining momentum and the research is being drawn on to help inform and generate other projects at a national level. Our work has advanced the ways in which intervening in widening participation to higher education and supporting retention of these students whilst at university can be informed, developed and progressed through research.

Read Gordon and Emma’s story to hear how intergenerational mentoring benefitted them in their roles as mentor and mentee.

Wellbeing rather than absence of illness

Engage 2019: Professor Sir Harry Burns keynote addressProfessor Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the International Public Policy Institute, closed the event with a thought-provoking keynote address emphasising the importance of wellbeing as we age. Sir Harry described how statistics on health do not necessarily provide a full picture of how wellbeing is achieved and that the focus needs to shift from the notion of wellbeing being simply the absence of illness.

He highlighted how without this recognition, some of the systemic social and care problems facing society will not easily be effectively addressed. This approach is in step with the Centre for Lifelong Learning's approach which aims to improve wellbeing just through the act of learning something new but also via the spin-off benefits such as social connections and boosted confidence.

A socially progressive employer

As an Age Friendly University it’s also important we promote this ethos by being an age friendly employer.  We already have a number of age friendly practices for staff, such as support for those with caring responsibilities,  including the creation of a Carer Policy and the establishment of a Carers’ Group. Our provision for carers was named runner-up in the ‘Advancing Staff Equality’ category at this year’s Guardian Higher Education Awards and has been shortlisted in the forthcoming 2019 Herald Higher Education Awards in the ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ category.

Reflecting on the event Alix McDonald said: “The numbers attending the event demonstrates the appetite for discussion around positive ageing and highlights the importance and relevance which Strathclyde attaches to this. The Age-Friendly Academy frames the University’s commitment to inclusion at either end of the age spectrum and underpins the philosophy of there being something for you at Strathclyde regardless of age or stage of life”.

Find out more and get involved

The aim of the Age Friendly Academy is to continue to add to our portfolio of activity related to ageing through new collaborative projects, new course development and maximised community engagement.  More details can be found on our website.

If you’re interested in learning new skills in creative and innovative areas, check out the CLL’s Summer Programme which is now available to book, with Strathclyde staff receiving a fantastic discount of a third off course fees.  Visit our online catalogue 'MyCLL' to view the full range of classes.

If you’d like to find out more about, or would like to join, the The Age-Friendly Academy Volunteering Network please email

And if you are a member of staff who is interested in sharing a volunteering or research opportunity with the Network then please contact

If you or someone you know is interested in our research work or becoming a volunteer member of our older adult participant panel in Psychological Sciences & Health, please contact Dr Louise Nicholls on for more information.

The Strathclyde Ageing Network is a multidisciplinary network of academic and professional staff, as well as PhD students, who are engaged or interested in ageing-related research. Our meetings, which contain discussion and a short research-based talk, normally take place on the last Wednesday of the month, 1-2pm, in GH590, during semester times. For further information on SAN, including joining the group, please contact Louise Nicholls on