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The U3A Story

What is the Third Age?

The First Age of learning refers to compulsory learning at school. The Second Age involves learning related to work and family responsibilities.  The Third Age refers to retirement and a presumed freedom to pursue learning for pleasure. In fact, there are no hard boundaries and theU3A movement in Britain has no upper or lower age limits.

French beginnings

In 1968, the French government passed legislation making universities responsible for the delivery of Lifelong Learning. In 1972, a  group of retired people met at a summer school organised at the University of Toulouse. It was so popular, that the university put on further courses during the forthcoming academic year. The first Université du Troisième Age (UTA) was open to anyone who had reached statutory retirement age and was prepared to pay a nominal fee. The concept of the University of the Third Age (U3A) was therefore born.

Learning activities took place in daytime and for five days a week during the academic year. Although lectures were combined with debates, field trips, recreational and physical activities, university staff were responsible for curricula and teaching and maintaining high academic standards thus justifying the “university “ label. The movement quickly gained international recognition, with the French model being adopted within 3 years by Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Italy, Spain and Quebec in Canada.

British adaptation

In 1981, the first U3A was established in Cambridge, and quickly spread to other towns, but the British U3As changed to an independent self-help approach, without support from the state or established academic institutions.

Whilst not tied into any university structure, the name stuck and the concept was more like the mediaeval universities where people got together in small groups to learn about a shared interest. As expressed by Peter Laslett, a Cambridge academic and one of the co-founders, there should be “no distinction between those who teach and those who learn, where as much as possible of the activity is voluntary”.

The U3A took off in England after a 5-minute talk on Radio 4’s “You and Yours” in 1982 by Eric Midwinter, another co-founder of U3A in Britain. From that talk he had about 400 letters from people asking how they could join a U3A.  His answer was “you’ll have to set one up yourself!” and now some 30 years later there are over 800 separate U3As in the UK with over a quarter of a million members. Merton U3A was one of the first to be set up, in 1983, and Diane Norton, who was at that time employed by Age Concern, provided space in her house in Wimbledon for the first UK national office.

Global expansion

The U3A has become one of the most successful movements in later-life learning. It has spread across the whole world with groups on every continent, some following the French model of being connected to universities, some following the British model of independent groups, and some taking a mixed approach.

Digital developments

U3A online courses were initially developed for the benefit of elderly people who could not physically participate in classes because they were housebound or living in remote areas. Now, however, Internet and other communication developments have enabled access to interactive online learning across the globe. U3AOnline offers a range of courses developed by tutors in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and accessible for either self-tuition or through virtual learning groups. The Virtual U3A (vU3A) doesn’t deliver structured online courses, but enables members to form their own independent online learning groups along the lines of the British model.




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