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.
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.
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: