History of the U3A

A Brief History of the University of the Third Age (U3A)

U3A was founded in 1981 by three friends, all distinguished in their own field and embarking on the "third age" of their lives. Peter Lazlett, Eric Midwinter and Michael Young. They met in Cambridge to discuss the intellectual and cultural prospects for older people. France had already set up in 1972 their Universités du Troisieme Age and some Cambridge academics saw this as their model. Peter Lazlett made a visit to the continent and on his return pronounced the organisation admirable in its way but too elitist - Second Agers, mostly men, deciding what Third Agers should learn. The three friends knew that older people were perfectly capable of teaching each other. It is this mutual learning principle, forming a learning cooperative, which marks our organisation in the UK from other U3As around the world. The three set about getting the organisation off the ground.

Eric Midwintwer, a distinguished educator, became the front man and made influential appearances on TV and Radio. Peter Lazlett, a sociologist, helped to shape the aims and principles of the new organisation and Michael Young, later Sir Michael, was an enormously influential ideas man who set up many worthwhile projects in his lifetime - not least the Open University. The three friends put their reputation on the line and took the gamble to set up the first U3A in Cambridge. Objectors pointed out the number of LEA and WEA classes that were available at the time but the three academics and their supporters held out for their new ideas of self-help learning. Cambridge was closely followed by founding of London U3A. Several of our members were closely involved in the birth of the London U3A and some years later started the Ealing Group. The founders' act of faith was rewarded and now there are around 500 U3A groups in the UK and more are being formed all the time; we are expanding rapidly.

Three things influenced the founding of the U3A: (a)The rise in the elderly section of the population as the nation's health improves. (b)The wish to provide for the educational, cultural and social needs of this section. (c)The wish to do this through self and mutual help with no external help. Its motto could be: "Those who teach shall also learn and those who learn shall also teach". The story of the U3A is told in Eric Midwinter's book: "500 Beacons ~ The U3A story", Third Age Press, 2004, ISBN 1898576815, £10 for U3A members.

Peter Lazlett and Sir Michael Young both died in 2002 but Eric Midwinter still maintains a keen interest in U3A. Michael Young was convinced that too much learning was imposed from above and maintained that "enthusiasm should trickle down and sideway". U3A has come a long way since three friends took their leap of faith twenty two years ago. We need new members to bring fresh ideas and help us to keep the founding principles alive at Ealing.

Interest Groups are the heart of the U3A movement. Groups meet mainly in each other's homes. Someone with particular expertise and knowledge takes on the role of teacher, leading each session. Alternatively, a member acts as secretary and helper with group members taking it in turn to lead a meeting. Groups generally meet fortnightly or monthly and everyone pays 20 pence a meeting to cover tea and coffee. If a class is full we have a waiting list and start a new group as soon as possible. To join a group, telephone the contact name on the programme sheet or approach them or a committee member at a Thursday meeting. If you cannot attend Thursday lectures you can still join a group, but must pay the membership subscription. Ealing U3A is always looking for new interest groups. If you would like to lead or suggest a group please contact a member of the committee.

U3A is a worldwide movement which seeks to encourage older people to take part in educational and cultural activities and help them to teach and learn from each other in friendly and informal settings. U3A is also keen to include the housebound and the disabled in its educational and cultural activities. No qualifications are required to join - and no qualifications or degrees awarded. Members are encouraged to see the value and take pleasure in learning for its own sake.

In the UK it has grown rapidly since its founding over 30 years ago. There are now (2011) some 820 U3As with over 272,000 members. It is one of the fastest growing organisations in the country. The movement is a self-help organisation. Most of the teaching and tuition comes from the ranks of its own members. It is a unique educational self-help co-operative. While each U3A is an autonomous unit responsible for organising its programme, the Third Age Trust - of which all local U3As are members - provides local U3As with administrative and educational resources and support to help in running their groups. It organizes "subject networks" of individuals who are willing to assist others in their particular field of study, e.g. languages, history, geology etc.

An annual general meeting and conference is held each year at which the principal office-bearers and committee members are elected and major issues debated. Summer Schools offering tuition in a wide variety of subjects are also held every year. These schools are open to members from all parts of the country and are staffed by volunteer tutors. U3A is actively developing the use of the internet in the cause of lifelong learning. As well as the central U3A website - www.u3a.org.uk, many local U3As have their own sites giving information about their activities. Steps are also being taken to provide on-line study courses, some in co-operation with U3A in Australia.

As leadership comes from the members themselves, a U3A member may be a student in one group one day and the leader or tutor the next. It is not always necessary to have an expert as a leader. In some subjects, members learn from each other and the role of the leader is to encourage everyone to take part. Interest groups are often quite small with meetings or classes taking place in members' homes. Not only does this save on accommodation costs, it makes for friendly contact among members. Costs are kept as low as possible so that members can take part in as many groups as they wish. Quite often members join to try out a subject that they always fancied. Others join because they are looking to make new friends in their retirement.