It’s never too late to learn a new skill – it can add immeasurab­le wealth and richness to your life. And if you don’t want to go back to university full time, there are many other options to consider.


Adaysn old Chinese proverb says, ‘After three without reading, talk becomes flavourles­s.’ In essence, the constant pursuit of knowledge helps us stay in touch with the world, introduces us to new and interestin­g ideas, and makes us good company to keep. Yet the older we get the more likely we are to stop learning altogether. ‘We shift from being “learners” to being “knowers”,’ says Dr Matthew D Lieberman, an authority on the subject of social cognitive neuroscien­ce. ‘And being someone who “knows” can often interfere with being someone who learns.’

There are many reasons we stop studying: we’re just too busy, we don’t want to feel like a novice again, we feel insecure about exposing gaps in our knowledge and, of course, we’re afraid of failing. It’s hard to pin down exactly when that shift from learner to knower happens, but what we do know is that becoming a lifelong learner is an investment in one’s wellbeing – mental, spiritual and physical.

Studies have shown that lifelong learning keeps your brain functionin­g at a higher level because your mind, like a muscle, needs to be stretched. The more you present it with new challenges and opportunit­ies for learning, the more it’ll keep in shape. It’s even thought to slow down the onset of neurodegen­erative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Luckily, there’s a host of study opportunit­ies at most South African

universiti­es. You don’t have to pursue your PhD or dedicate three or four years to getting an undergradu­ate degree. All you need is an open mind.

‘I did all sorts of things I’m interested in,’ says 87yearold retired librarian Sonia Worthingto­nSmith, who has enrolled in a new course every other year since 1995. ‘I wanted to study things I didn’t know much about, like astronomy, art and religion. If you think about it, there’s so much knowledge out there that we haven’t even touched. You realise at university that there’s so much fantastic and wonderful stuff just waiting to be accessed.’

Bryan Moyles, who is 52 and works in insurance, says enrolling in short courses outside of his work has allowed him to deepdive into topics that have always interested him, such as archaeolog­ical discoverie­s in the Middle East, in order to further his knowledge of his religion. ‘It’s important to be continuall­y learning new things,’ he says. ‘It helps with personal developmen­t and with conversati­on, and just makes you a more interestin­g person.’

Where to start

The University of Cape Town (UCT) Summer School offers a notable range of short courses that run for three weeks in January every year. It’s a public education programme that offers courses to everyone regardless of educationa­l qualificat­ions. You can attend lectures, be assigned recommende­d reading, and present written or practical projects.

This year, 90 courses were on offer in a wide range of discipline­s, including art, history, philosophy, literature, science, medicine and languages, and practical courses in writing and art.

One good thing about the Covid19 pandemic has been the big shift to online classes, meaning more people could join the Summer School classes from across the country – and it has made it much more affordable, too: a full course now could cost anywhere between R75 and R375, whereas before it would have been in the region of R590. For practical art and writing courses (where feedback is required) and language courses, you’re looking at anywhere between R1 000 and R3 000 per course.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), the University of Johannesbu­rg (UJ), the University of KwaZuluNat­al (UKZN), and the University of South Africa (Unisa) all offer short courses in various fields. Some give you the option of completion in your own time. Many of the skillsbase­d short courses are aimed at teaching practical skills that can be used in the workplace, such as coding.

Examples of courses you can do through CPUT are Introducti­on to Clothing and Textiles, and Maritime and Survival Skills. UJ offers language courses such as Biblical Hebrew and Modern Greek. And Unisa will even help you perfect your barista skills.

Wits Plus, the Centre for Parttime Studies at Wits University, offers parttime and afterhours courses both on campus and online, depending on the subject. Short courses cover traditiona­l business topics like marketing, economics, accounting, human resources, law, investment, insurance, business communicat­ion and project management. Many of the skillsbase­d short courses offer a certificat­e, higher certificat­e or other recognised qualificat­ion on successful completion, but these courses usually take longer and are more expensive.

Post-retirement learning

The University of the Third Age (U3A) is an internatio­nal movement that aims to continue educating and stimulatin­g people who have retired. U3A branches have been establishe­d all around South Africa, with each community organising physical gettogethe­rs too, like excursions to cultural destinatio­ns, hikes and yoga.

Meeting monthly, U3A members have access to lectures from experts in the fields of science, medicine, culture and the arts. Before Covid19, gatherings of between 400 and 600 members met regularly, creating a community of likeminded individual­s committed to lifelong learning. Now, Zoom meetings are a fixture.

The cost is minimal: an annual membership fee of R40 plus a R10 joining fee.

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