Registered Charity No. 803112
History of the u3a

History of the u3a

The University of the Third Age began in France. In 1972 in Toulouse, a successful summer school for retired people prefaced the very first Université du Troisième Age. This was quickly followed by programmes in other towns close to Toulouse and the notion spread rapidly, not only in France. Such was the take-up of the idea in other countries that an international body known as the International Association of Universitiés of the Third Age (AIUTA) was established as early as 1980.

Contacts with the founder members of u3a in the UK were made in 1978 and these were maintained and built on over the next three or four years.

The French model centred around universities. A committee of retired people negotiated a contract with its university for the use of its facilities and tuition. Our founder members although greatly impressed by the achievement in France and stimulated by the magnificence of the concept, felt there were drawbacks to this version. In effect a u3a could only operate if there was a conveniently situated university. Moreover what was offered was traditional academic fayre and too much power could rest with the professional body.

It was felt by Peter Laslett, Eric Midwinter and Michael Young that it should be possible to form a local u3a anywhere there was a sufficient number of like-minded people; that the curriculum should be as broad as possible and that it should be managed by the people themselves.

The self-help model was born

In 1981, Peter Laslett hosted a meeting in Cambridge, attended by educationalists and scientists, which discussed and lent support to the notion of bringing the u3a ideal to Britain. This was quickly followed by a workshop organised by Eric Midwinter to which anybody who had shown an interest in the idea was invited. These meetings led to an application to the Nuffield Foundation for financial aid and the decision to hold a public meeting in Cambridge. The meeting was judged a success, a view reinforced by the request from BBC Radio 4 the next day for an interview about the events of the previous evening. The effect of the first ‘u3a’ broadcast was amazing – over 400 letters arrived in a few days. The grant application was also successful and it was determined to hold an experimental Easter school in Cambridge in March 1982.

75 people enrolled, the classes were mainly in traditional subjects but with considerable scope for discussion and participation. By the finish, a Cambridge u3a was a certainty and a decision was taken to form a national committee. A u3a in London was also on the cards. The national committee performed a dual function; it was both a small propagandist machine trying to persuade others to start u3as and a hub for keeping the growing number of groups in some form of meaningful contact.

Gradually u3a groups were born in different parts of the country; Yeovil, West Midlands, Nottingham, Oxford, Wakefield, Barnstaple. In 1983, a second seminar was held and 22 dele-gates turned up representing localities where u3as had either started or were under consideration. It was tantamount to a national conference and local u3as were invited to become formal members of the national body, which was registered as both a company limited by guarantee and a charity in October 1983.

By the end of 1983, eight u3as were officially registered and the u3a movement was on its way.

“The starting point was that older age should be looked on more positively”

Listen to a conversation between Eric Midwinter, one of the co-founders of the u3a movement, and Liz Thackray, current u3a national Chair. Click on the image to watch:

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