History of Project

WHAT IS U3A? www.u3a.org.uk

The University of the Third Age (U3A) movement is a unique and exciting organisation which provides, through its many nationwide U3As, life-enhancing and life-changing opportunities. Retired and semi-retired people come together and learn together, not for qualifications but for its own reward: the sheer joy of discovery.

Members share their skills and life experiences: the learners teach and the teachers learn, and there is no distinction between them.

The U3A movement is supported by its national organisation, the Third Age Trust. There are currently 424,000 members of 1035 U3As in the UK. Exeter U3A has 683 members and 68 special interest groups.


U3As tend to be made up of special interest groups – and Exeter U3A is no exception – from reading groups and discussion groups, through science, understanding weather and classical music, to walking and philosophy. There really is something for everyone. However, the Exeter U3A/Exeter University Liaison Project is not a ‘group’ in that all paid-up members of Exeter U3A can attend any of our sessions. They do not need to be part of a specific group.

Our main aim is to maintain mutually beneficial links between the members of Exeter U3A and our university in Exeter. Many UK U3As are linked with their local university, including three Russell Group universities. Our small liaison team of Exeter U3A members started in 2013 to work towards setting up this link and we were delighted when a formal Memorandum of Understanding was signed in March 2016.

We knew that persuasion was going to be needed on both sides. Initially some U3A members were sceptical – the campus was too far away, nothing to do with them – the classic ‘town v gown’ attitude. On the other side, public engagement at the time was mainly with schools and colleges as well as businesses. We needed to show everyone how useful the link could be. What we did not want was to simply ask an academic to come to a hired room in the centre of Exeter to ‘do a talk’. We wanted to find out about the research that was going on in a variety of departments in our university and to find out if we could help. In addition, we wanted to stimulate our brains and introduce our members to a variety of topics they might otherwise never have become interested in. Exeter U3A members have worked in many different organisations and have a wealth of life experience and expertise to share.


The Catalyst project was a three-year, Research Councils UK-funded, project to support and develop a culture of public engagement with research within the University of Exeter. We made some useful links through Catalyst, initially through Dr Helen Featherstone, then Grace Williams, now Public Engagement Manager. Although the project has now finished, we had great help in setting up our MOU with the member of staff involved in the public engagement field at the time, Anka Djordjevic. Catalyst was responsible for setting up our first event in August 2013, on Bioenergy.
Through Catalyst, we were asked if we could provide a lay member to sit on two university committees – the Exeter Animal Welfare & Ethical Review Group (Olwen Goodall) and Social Sciences and International Studies Ethics Committee (Peter Cleasby). This involvement has continued.


Although Catalyst helped us to get started and make some contacts, most of our links with academic staff have come from our own networking. To a reader of the reports on our website, our sessions may seem rather random – and they are! We have followed up all suggestions in a variety of departments. Some staff are too busy or not interested at all; others are happy to do a one-off talk about their research; others are very keen for us to become involved in their research – not just that of the academic staff but at times their students as well.
To counteract the ‘town v gown’ attitude, we wanted our sessions to be on the campus, easily accessible from the centre of Exeter. We also wanted to make it easy for academics, so our small liaison team usually arrange initial meetings with interested staff over coffee on campus.


In the past three years our liaison work has gone from strength to strength and it is impossible to mention all of the events that have taken place. We have had talks by experts in their field, presentations by research students and involvement in research. Full details can be found on Exeter’s U3A website

follow the links to Exeter University Liaison.

We try to organise an event each month but this can prove difficult in term time due to the availability of staff and rooms on campus.

Exeter U3A members are not just a passive audience. Most of the time we actually ‘do’ something, e.g. complete a questionnaire, as well as provide a stimulating and challenging group of questioners.

The following gives some idea of the range of activities we are involved in:

Philosophy – The Musically Extended Mind
Law – Assisted Suicide
Physics – The Science of Brilliant Colour
Geography – The Global Fashion Revolution
History – Mediaeval Aids to Fertility
Classics – Food and Nutrition in Greek and Roman Art
Genetics – Research into Ageing
English - Broadcasting Shakespeare Live from the RSC
Education – Why Grammar Matters.

We have also been lay members on interview panels; we have read lay summaries for research funding; we have helped PhD students to focus their research – and we have become very involved with international students through setting up a Conversation Café at INTO. Twelve of our members even participated alongside the students in a final year English module, Reading for Life – a very rewarding and enlightening intergenerational experience.


What is interesting now is that academics are approaching us, as well as the other way around. Our engagement is spreading into many different areas of the university. This year some of us will be involved in the Grand Challenges programme in June.
On our side, the sceptics have been proved wrong and we have many members coming to the events we organise. Not only our events, but public events at the university are now becoming popular. We now have a database of over 100 members who are interested in our university liaison events and thankfully we have our own administrator to deal with bookings!
As for our small team, we carry on networking in order to introduce our members to examples of the stimulating and wide-ranging research that goes on in our local university.
Carol McCullough (for the team) 08.02.19