Sandra Haurant 4 Sep 2018 05:16pm

Life lessons

There have never been as many choices for those who want to weave study around busy professional lives, or opportunities to expand their minds. Sandra Haurant looks at some of the options for busy people on a quest for knowledge
Caption: We look at some options for busy people wanting to fit study around life

There have never been so many ways to continue learning. While adult education was once restricted to finding a local evening course to dash off to after work, these days you can study anywhere, any time. Evening and weekend classes still play an important part, but a growing variety of other ways to study means that, for those who want to fit learning around busy work lives, the world is your classroom.

As the American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewy put it: “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.” Whether you are interested in mastering a new language; you want to try something creative; learn a new skill; or take the time to indulge a long-held interest, there are proven benefits to adult learning. According to a 2016-17 survey by the Workers Educational Association (WEA), which offers courses in subjects ranging from baking to novel writing to astronomy, learning has a positive impact on lives.

Of 4,000 people studying with WEA, 72% said that taking courses had improved their confidence; 57% said it had reduced their stress levels; and 82% of those with mental health issues reported an improvement in their condition. Occupational psychologist Emma Donaldson-Feilder, director of Affinity Health at Work, says: “In my work as a career coach, my observation is that there is a sense of development and moving forward that comes from study, which is positive for wellbeing.” The Open University (OU) has been at the forefront of distance learning in the UK since its beginning in 1969, and the old correspondence courses have today been replaced by cutting-edge digital learning environments.

The OU offers courses, from free, informal online learning through to post-graduate degrees, and its faculties cover everything you would expect from a major university from forensic psychology to classical studies. Students manage their approach to study to fit in with their needs and interests. David Knight, director for access, careers and teaching support at the OU, says: “We have around 185,000 students from around the world enrolled on our courses.” Its hallmark is probably the Open Degree. This qualification allows students to mix and match undergraduate modules in any subjects they are interested in, building up the required number of credits for a degree.

For those less interested in the cap and gown at the end, the OU owns a platform called FutureLearn where it offers free courses known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, alongside those run by other universities around the world. MOOCs provide structured learning over a series of weeks and are, as the name suggests, open to all.

The OU’s courses cover subjects from an introduction to geology through to fiction writing. On the same FutureLearn platform, you’ll find the University of Exeter’s course on climate change solutions and Newcastle University’s on the history of Hadrian’s Wall. Courses are free, but with many you can pay to upgrade for unlimited access to its resources after the course has finished and to gain a Certificate of Achievement or Statement of Participation.

The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment was set up by writer Tom Hodgkinson and his partner Victoria Hull and offers in-person classes and seminars, as well as online courses. Choose from singing, calligraphy, ukulele playing, meditation, public speaking and more. Online lessons are video-based, and students can dip in and out as they choose. Courses cost from around £40 for six to eight lessons.

“There are no qualifications at the end; it really is just for curious minds,” explains Hull, Idler Academy’s director. “We have courses on ancient and modern philosophy, beekeeping, how to write a song, how to write a poem.”

The range of courses especially appeal to those who actively seek out different experiences beyond their working lives. “Professionals who join us on the live courses say it is such a relief to do something just for the pure fun of it,” says Hull. While signing up to a course requires a certain level of commitment, regardless of the subject you choose or the skill you want to perfect, there are real benefits for those who engage with learning.

According to an Office for National Statistics study in 2012: “Higher levels of qualifications and continued formal and informal learning have been associated with greater individual subjective wellbeing.” Learning outside the workplace can also help to combat the frustrations of the office, effectively helping us to “recover” from stressful jobs, says DonaldsonFeilder: “Research shows we need to use different parts of our brains outside work, and learning something that is personally interesting and different from work will help people to switch off from their jobs and stop ruminating.”

Get creative

If you want to learn a new skill for fun, the Ministry of Craft in Manchester ( runs one-day sessions in the city centre and in Didsbury, with courses including screen printing, lino cutting and sewing classes for beginners through to more complicated dressmaking lessons. “Classes are small and friendly and everyone goes home with a new skill,” says owner Alison Leese.

If you are looking for a more formal structure and want to work towards a qualification, but still need flexibility, you could try the Open College of the Arts (OCA), a non-profit educational charity that runs courses in the creative arts, encompassing all sorts of disciplines from drawing and painting to creative writing, from photography through to textiles, and everything in between.

You can take a foundation course to discover the basics and build up new skills, study individual modules or go all the way through to an Open Degree in your chosen subjects, or even a Masters, working at times that suit you best.

A thirst for knowledge

The University of Adelaide offers a MOOC, World of Wine: From Grape to Glass, a course led by oenology professors covering the principles of viticulture and how different growing practices affect the taste and quality of the wine in your glass.

You can sign up at The University of Burgundy, in one of France’s most celebrated wine regions, also offers a MOOC. The course covers viticulture, understanding terroir, tasting techniques and vinification, as well as the history and cultural importance of wine.

For something a little stronger, the Gin School in Salcombe, Devon, and the Distillers Kitchen in Leicester can teach you how to make gin to your own recipe. These on-site classes will send you away with key distilling skills as well as a 70cl bottle of your personal gin.

A speaking difference

In 2016, researchers from the University of Edinburgh assessed the mental alertness of a group of 33 students, aged between 18 and 78, who had attended a one-week Scottish Gaelic course. Researchers tracked people’s attention levels, and compared the results with those of a group who had completed a one-week course in a subject other than a new language, and a group who had not completed a course at all.

Both groups on intensive courses saw improvements in attention levels, but those learning a language did significantly better. And nine months after the initial course ended, those who practised the language five hours or more per week continued to improve. Edinburgh’s Dr Thomas Bak said: “I think there are three important messages from our study: firstly, it is never too late to start a novel mental activity such as learning a new language. Secondly, even a short intensive course can show beneficial effects on some cognitive functions. Thirdly, this effect can be maintained through practice.”

Meanwhile, Canadian research has shown that bilingual people can stave off the signs of Alzheimer’s, with symptoms showing around four years later than in monolingual people, while studies from Penn State University showed that bilingual people were better at multitasking.

Many universities and colleges offer foreign language evening classes for beginners through to advanced speakers. The University of Nottingham, for example, runs courses in French, Spanish, Modern Greek, Russian and more, and you can study Mandarin at the Confucius Institute, which runs courses at the University of Manchester. Private schools, such as Cactus, run lessons around the country.

The Alliance Française offers a range of French courses, from evening classes for beginners through to intensive daily lessons. There are schools in cities including London, Manchester, Leeds and Bath. Instituto Cervantes, its Spanish equivalent, offers Spanish lessons in Leeds, London and Manchester, while the Goethe Institute has German courses in London and Glasgow. These bodies offer residential courses in their home countries, and Cactus also organises language courses abroad, so you can sign up for an immersive course and really soak up language skills and local culture.