History of the U3A

Foundations National U3A logo

The U3A (The University of the Third Age) is an international organisation, first established at the University of Toulouse in France in 1972. Its intention was to improve the quality of life for retired people by encouraging them to join existing academic programmes run by the local universities, or short courses set up especially for them. The idea spread rapidly throughout France and then onto other parts of the world, leading, in 1975, to the formation of an International Association of U3As (AIUTA) with the aim of promoting active learning, research and community service among 'third agers' everywhere. The AIUTA hold a conference every two years.

Since its inception in 1982, the 'University of the Third Age' movement - U3A - has operated on a number of fundamental principles which determine its unique character and style. The original 'Objects and Principles' were largely determined by the late Peter Laslett, the distinguished educationalist and one of the founding fathers of U3A, together with Eric Midwinter and Michael Young.

U3As quickly evolved away from the French model of university-provided courses to a mutual aid and self-help organisation, as adult education was well established in the UK, and 'third agers' were clearly capable of managing their own affairs. The reservoir of knowledge, skills and experience amongst retired people in the more informal, shared-learning, British model, based on peer group learning as distinct from academic, institution-led learning, is tapped and put to use for the benefit of others, and has now been adopted by many other countries.

The name of the organisation chosen by the French has been retained, but the word 'university' is used in the UK in its original sense, that is as 'a community of people devoted to a particular kind of activity or personal development'. It is not a system of formal education, so there are no deadlines or examinations to sit, or indeed any of the restrictions which normally accompany the word 'university'. It is simply learning for pleasure.

'The Third Age' - active retirement - is an exciting stage of life when the heavy demands within the home and workplace have been fulfilled and there is now time for personal fulfilment and development - for the older person to do something for himself or herself.

The Current Situation in Britain

Local U3As are autonomous, self-help organisations, bringing members with similar interests together to form common interest groups, (i.e. interest/study groups). The individual activities of each U3A are planned and undertaken, through elected committees, according to their members' wishes. U3As are all self-financing on a non profit-making basis, with no political or religious influence or allegiance, and develop according to the needs and resources of their local areas.

In Britain, the vast majority of U3As are affiliated to the 'Third Age Trust'. A member of AIUTA, and a registered charity and limited company with its operations controlled by a National Executive Committee, elected by the members of the U3As, the Trust offers supporting services to the network of affiliated U3As throughout the country. Services include insurance, legal advice, a resources centre, an annual conference, summer schools, study days, subject matter networks, and computer training. The Trust also publishes a newsletter three times a year, 'U3A News', and 'Sources', a quarterly educational bulletin, as well as helping with the formation of new U3As.

'On Line' learning packages are now being introduced for the housebound, carers etc., some being geared towards individual study, whilst others will be geared towards group studies. A working group has also been set up to explore the possibility of developing a Virtual U3A as a means of helping existing U3A members who are isolated (for whatever reason) but who wish to continue to participate in U3A activities, including membership of interest/study groups, by making use of computer technology and the internet.

Looking to the Future

In 2004, in the light of changing circumstances over the previous 21 years, the National Executive Committee of the Third Age Trust produced a new set of 'Aims and Guiding Principles.'

They were drawn up following an extensive consultation throughout the organisation over the previous two years. The new document retains the spirit of the original but sets out the philosophy of the movement in language and style more appropriate for the new century.

Some aims are:
  • 'to encourage and enable older people to help each to share their knowledge, skills, and experience'
  • 'to celebrate the capabilities and potential of older people and their value to society'
  • 'to encourage the establishment of U3As in every part of the country'

Among the guiding principles on styles and methods of learning is the recognition that the pleasure of learning is a driving force in U3As and that U3A members see themselves as both learners and teachers.

Commenting on the revision, Keith Richards, Chairman of The Third Age Trust, said:

"Our 21st anniversary was an ideal opportunity to review our fundamental aims and objectives. The result is excellent and I am pleased that so many of our members shared in the debate. Of course, the original documents will remain as valuable reminders of our original purpose."

All local U3As are members of the Third Age Trust, which provides administrative and learning support for local activities. The Trustees are elected from local U3As and serve as the National Executive Committee of the Trust.

Each local U3A is expected to subscribe to the general principles but is autonomous.

On 8th July 2007, there were 638 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 186,320 members.
On 7th May 2008, there were 676 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 203,739 members.
On 29th May 2009, there were 724 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 228,053 members.
On 29th August 2010, there were 767 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 248,042 members.
On 10th March 2011, there were 792 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 251,462 members.
On 7th April 2012, there were 844 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 275,048 members.
On 1st January 2013, there were 870 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 295,813 members.
On 1st January 2014, there were 915 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 320,521 members.
On 1st July 2015, there were 959 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 342,783 members.
On 1st May 2016, there were 994 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 365,544 members
On 1st May 2017, there were 1010 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 385,029 members
On 1st January 2019, there were 1035 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 424,000 members
As of 1st October 2020, there are 1057 affiliated U3As in the UK with a total of 450,000 members, showing how quickly the movement is growing.

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