August is a funny month in UK universities. I wandered into the corridor yesterday to find two young South Korean students waiting patiently in our waiting area, despite being surrounded by closed doors. When I asked whether I could help them, they explained in faltering but perfectly intelligible English that they were undergraduate students from South Korea who had been sponsored by their provincial government to come to England to interview academics about issues relating to ageing policy. They were walking down the Strand when they realised that they were walking past a University (well done King’s, I guess), and so they came inside and were excited to note that we had an Institute of Gerontology. They ventured up to the Department and sat and waited until someone came out. I took a breath, reminded myself inwardly that the primary purpose of unversities is education, mentally rearranged my afternoon and extended my #goinghometime, and offered them 30 minutes of interview. Also idly wondered how many British undergrads get sponsored to go to South Korea to undertake the same exercise in reverse…
South Korea faces among the more extreme challenges of an ageing population in the World, with rapid changes in mortality and fertility leading to an incredibly fast change from a ‘young’ to an ‘old’ population. The focus of their sponsoring province seemed to be how the province could encourage NGOs and social enterprises to assist with ensuring older workers were able to stay in work, but their (excellently prepared) questions ranged across all aspects of social policy. They were however, it turned out, students of English language, and did not know anything about political science, public or social policy, sociology or gerontology, and we had a very short time for this discussion.
This is how I found myself explaining to them that for older people it is important for the state to provide the four essential pillars of well-being in later life – health care, pensions (income), social care and housing; that all capitalist welfare states make different political and institutional choices about how to provide these; and that in each sphere there is a mixed economy of state, market, private sector, voluntary sector and family provision. I found myself saying that in terms of state provision free at the point of delivery, the most important of these is health care, and that health care free at the point of delivery is the single most important thing a capitalist nation state can provide for its older people. They asked, did I mean for over 60s? Or over 65s? No, no. Not at all. I mean cradle to grave. Actually, pre-natal to grave, since the lifecourse is so important in understanding well-being in late life. And it must be comprehensive, from preventative public health programmes to dental care to cancer care to dementia care, and free to everybody at the point of delivery, and of the highest quality. And that Britain has chosen, over the decades, to provide that care for its citizens, as a citizenship right, paid for by taxation. And that if we were to export one thing in terms of social policy for older people to the new ageing populations of the World, this should be it.
And so there I was. My passion is pensions, but in 15 minutes I realised that my heart, mind and soul belong to the NHS. State provided, free from the hideousness of the market and the means test, from cradle to grave.