Britain’s oldest student – Pensioner completing PHD at 90

Pic by Luke Johnston / Caters News Agency

This pensioner can make a good claim to be Britain’s oldest student.

Instead of taking a relaxing retirement, 90-year-old Joy Gibson is completing a PhD – but makes sure she has time to enjoy a drink at the pub with her much younger friends.

She is currently 63,000 words into her PhD at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham and living every student’s nightmare with the pressure of looming deadlines.

She also has to balance her studies with her social life, which involve drama, directing, and going for drinks with classmates in their 20s.

Once she completes the PhD, she will have earned a BA, an MA, two MPhils, an MLit and her doctorate in the more than 30 years since she retired.

Pic by Luke Johnston / Caters News Agency 

Joy, from Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, would not have it any other way.

She said: “I absolutely love reading and I love Shakespeare, so carrying on learning is a perfect fit.

“It keeps me active and I enjoy it so I really haven’t seen any need to stop.

“I had two hip operations last year which leave me feeling a little tired so I sometimes have a little less energy now, but I am determined to keep learning.

“I have been working on my PhD for five years and I’ve got another 15,000 words to go. I would like to finish it next year – it would be nice to have my viva on my 91st birthday.

“I also love doing the drama and seeing people at the marvellous Shakespeare Institute. I directed Hamlet there.

Pic from Caters News Agency

“I don’t do any acting nowadays as it’s a little harder for me to move around and remember lines, but I still enjoy directing. It’s great fun.”

For Joy part of the delight of studying at an older age is that she can keep her social circle expanding.

Living near to the Shakespeare Institute means it is not far for her to drop in and see her colleagues.

She said: “The problem with getting old is that most of your friends move away or die.

“My two best friends both live in France now so I hardly ever see them.

“But now I have friends in their 20s, 30s, and 40s and it’s fantastic. And I know people from all over the world at the Institute.

“I actually have a lot in common with the younger students, because we share a love of Shakespeare and theatre. As I don’t have a family of my own it’s almost like having grandchildren.

“I occasionally go out for drinks with them – but it’s not easy to keep up. I prefer to sit with a glass of wine.”

Pic by Luke Johnston / Caters News Agency 

Joy says her parents instilled in her a love and respect for education, forgoing cars and holidays so they could pay for her schooling.

She got her love of Shakespeare from her father, who she could always rely on to take her to see a performance if she wanted to go.

However, at the age of 18 and all set to take up a place reading politics at the LSE, Joy had to forego further education to allow former servicemen to attend.

Instead, Joy turned her hand to teaching drama.

She said: “I was very privileged that my parents were focused on my education.

“Shakespeare was taught very well at my school because we moved the desks and actually acted it out. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed.

“I was amazed by all of it, and my father could always be counted on to take me into London if I told him something good was on, because he loved Shakespeare too.

Pic by Luke Johnston / Caters News Agency 

“It did annoy me that I was not able to go to university earlier, although I think nowadays there is too much emphasis on people getting degrees.

“As I could not study anymore and I really enjoyed drama, I went into teaching it.”

After growing bored of teaching drama, Joy got a qualification in advertising and started working in the industry.

This allowed her to gain writing experience, and she eventually moved to writing about fashion and travel.

In her magazine career she also interviewed superstars such as Sir Stirling Moss, Alfred Hitchcock, Dame Judy Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. She even completed a biography of the latter.

But after returning home and complaining to her mother that she did not feel satisfied, she encouraged Joy to sign up for a foundation course at the Open University.

Pic from Caters News Agency

Joy enjoyed it so much, that she moved on to North London University to complete a degree in philosophy at the age of 59.

At the time she was also writing books and waking up at 5:30am to get all of her work in.

She said: “I imagine I had a very different lifestyle to many of my classmates. I would wake up and do two hours of reading or writing before going in to college.

“I didn’t tell any of my younger classmates about it just in case they got snooty, but I’m certain I was one of the hardest workers.

“I found I really enjoyed the studying, particularly after I retired. It was a very good way to fill the day. It also has good health benefits and helps ward off dementia.

“I would highly recommend it to anybody.”