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Why we need to talk about life expectancy

  • 6 January 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

There are probably lots of issues related to higher education policymaking that we don’t talk enough about. But, for me, the prime one is life expectancy. It links to almost everything. Yet, aside from the consequences for staff pensions, we seemingly never talk about it.

Even on pensions, we talk more about investment returns, the structure of benefits (defined benefit or defined contribution?) and the right contribution rates than we do about the dramatic increases that have taken places in how long people are expected to live.

But, if you want to know why defined benefit pensions like the University Superannuation Scheme, the Teachers’ Pension Scheme and the Local Government Pension Scheme are so expensive to deliver, then increases in life expectancy explain much of the increased costs. When the USS began in 1975, someone aged 65 was expected to live around five years less than someone aged 65 at the start of this decade.

And if you want to know why today’s students are unlikely to have access to a defined benefit pension scheme with large employer contributions, as university staff typically do, that is also partly a result of increases in life expectancy.

Students helping academics ensure the USS stays a defined benefit scheme by, for example, supporting industrial action are, generally, undertaking a selfless act. They are, in effect, agreeing that they should borrow money to ensure their lecturers continue having more generous pension entitlements than most workers receive, and which they themselves are unlikely to benefit from.

But this isn’t a blog about pensions. It’s a blog about life expectancy and all the other ways it affects higher education – or should affect the higher education policy debate.

Rising life expectancy is

  • … why people should stay longer in education: they can spend more time in education but without the time spent in education taking up a higher proportion of their lives compared to the lives of their parents …
  • … why we need more opportunities for mature students: if people are to retire much later, they are more likely to need to learn new things along the way …
  • … why there is more demand for doctors, nurses and allied health professionals: some of the extra life expectancy is healthy life expectancy, but much of it isn’t …
  • … why there is interest in the idea of universities being in loco parentis – if the years from 0 to 18 make up a shorter proportion of your life than the lives of your ancestors, then delaying full-blown adulthood makes sense.

So it is a new year’s resolution of mine to think more about life expectancy and how it relates to higher education.


Over the Christmas and new year break, we kept on blogging. You may have missed the following blogs on a diverse set of topics:


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1 comment

  1. Dennis A. Ahlburg says:

    and another implication of increasing (healthy) life expectancy is age-based retirement schemes such as those at Oxford and Cambridge are difficult to justify.

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