University of the Third Age (U3A) – What does it mean?
U3A is a voluntary, not-for-profit organisation that aims to offer older people low-cost educational opportunities operating in a pleasant, supportive social setting. There are no formal entry requirements and no examinations. U3A is basically a self-help group built on the premise that collectively older people have the skills and knowledge to provide learning opportunities for each other. The word “university” is used in its earliest sense – a community of scholars who work together to support each other in a learning/social experience. Most of the U3A groups in Australia are community based.
There are several, mainly in the capital cities, which do have an affiliation with and receive support from their local University. Cairns U3A members are most fortunate to have the support and affiliation from James Cook University. The principles of self-help and mutual support are the cornerstone of the U3A movement.
How and when did the U3A movement begin?
U3A is a worldwide organisation. It began in France in 1968, when legislation was passed that required universities to offer more community education. In 1973 a highly rated gerontology course was provided by Toulouse University for local retired people, a course that was extremely successful and which led to the formation of what was to be the first U3A. This organisation was open to anyone past retirement age; no qualifications or examinations were required and fees were kept to a minimum.
The idea spread rapidly throughout France and then to Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Italy, Spain and across the Atlantic to Quebec and California. When U3A surfaced in Great Britain (in Cambridge), however, the “model” was to undergo a significant change. Whereas in the French model there were strong ties to the universities, which decided upon, structured and presented most of the courses, in the British model these university ties were to disappear. In the new system there was to be no distinction between the teacher and the taught – members would, as far as possible, be teachers as well as learners. This new self-help approach is based on the knowledge that “experts” of every kind in every field retire, so there should be no need to depend on paid tutors of either the second or third ages!
How does U3A operate?
Each U3A (and there are many U3A groups in each state of Australia) is an autonomous association whose members are, in the main, retired or at least semi-retired. The recommended age-requirement for membership is 50 years plus. A Management Committee democratically elected from among members oversees our group. Administration and office functions are performed by members on a voluntary basis.
Course leaders/tutors are as far as possible drawn from members, although community (non-U3A) volunteers may sometimes be willing to conduct short courses or a one-off presentation. In the spirit of sharing, there is no distinction between teacher and taught; the leader of one course may well be a student in another. Course leaders (member or non-member) do not receive payment for their services. The members themselves are the valuable resource from which to draw knowledge and skills and are encouraged members to offer their skills for tutoring. This method continues to be highly successful.
What does U3A offer?
U3A offers a program of weekly classes conducted in daylight hours and arranged on a term or semester basis. (It has been found that as many members have grand-parenting responsibilities, it is sometimes wise to avoid scheduling activities during school holidays!) A wide range of subjects is offered, depending on the interests of members and the availability of suitable group-leaders/tutors. The scope of a program is limited only by the resources/leaders/tutors available and there is no set curriculum.