The University of the Third Age (u3a) was conceived and birthed more than 40 years ago. A child of its time, the organisation has now reached middle-aged – and it remains as relevant and necessary as it always was.

Back in the 1980s, the UK had an ageing society. The proportion of the population aged over 60 had trebled since the beginning of the century. The number of older people no longer in paid employment was increasing – and many of these, including nearly a third of all of 55- to 59-year-olds, had not reached state retirement age. Meanwhile, a number of active older people had missed out on educational opportunities earlier in their lives while serving King and country, and had not benefited from the educational reforms of the late 1940s. Yet family sizes had decreased, resulting in a reduction in ongoing parental responsibilities, and the days of grandparental duties had not yet arrived.

‘Ordinary people’ at the steering wheel

The three men credited with founding the u3a in the UK – Michael Young, Eric Midwinter and Peter Laslett – shared a common philosophy; a commitment to mutual aid and self-help, and the essential value of ‘ordinary people’ running their own affairs. Each had been involved in endeavours that challenged societal thinking. In setting up the Third Age Trust as an umbrella body, there was a hope that it might become a home not only for the incipient u3a, but also for other groups focusing on later life.

Our founders rejected the French model for later-life learning, which bore a close resemblance to the offerings of UK universities. Instead, their underlying principle was that older people deserved educational facilities, and that older people should manage these facilities themselves.

Initially it was unclear how much interest the embryonic University of the Third Age – u3a – would attract. A conference in 1981 led to the establishment of a handful of local groups. It was clear that many people wanted to meet together and learn from each other. Soon there were 100 u3as, growing rapidly to 250 then 500 and, today, there are over 1,000 with a pre-pandemic membership of nearly half a million. 

The u3a was very much a child of its time, but what is the role of the u3a today in our increasingly complex and changing society? Always open to all ‘Third Agers’, it is educational in the broadest sense, recognising the importance of leisure and social companionship.

It is democratically run by u3a members for u3a members, with the support and expertise of a small group of paid staff. Fundamentally, the model established 40 years ago has stood the test of time. But, increasingly, there is a need to explore what changes are necessary for us to be fit for the future.

How can the u3a be as relevant to third agers today, as we were 40 years ago? Society has changed considerably over the past 40 years, and those changes affect both u3a as a charity and our potential membership. 

Surviving and thriving

While 40 years ago it was relatively easy to set up a new charity, today there are far more demands. Each new u3a has to prove it is serving a charitable purpose; that it is legally and financially viable; and that it gives proper regard to safeguarding and diversity issues. Many volunteers are scared of becoming charity trustees, despite insurances to protect them if things go wrong and – in the case of a federated charity such as u3a – support from appropriately qualified staff.

An ongoing challenge is therefore recruiting new members willing to give time to running their local u3a – or to become involved regionally or nationally. We are fundamentally a self-help, mutual aid organisation dependent upon volunteers at all levels. Locally, this can be hugely challenging-  especially as few volunteers can commit to what can become almost a full-time occupation.

Despite this – and despite a decrease in membership during the pandemic – the u3a continues to thrive, with new members joining and new u3as being established. Members develop new interests, learning from each other, having fun together, making new friends, and challenging negative images of aging by what we do. 

Looking to the future, we need to raise our profile, encouraging new members to join. We also have to explore how best to be relevant in a changing world, with the different lifestyles and challenges it presents, while remaining true to the beliefs of our founders.



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