The principles of self-help and mutual support are the very cornerstones of the U3A movement. The word university is used in its earliest sense – a community of scholars who get together to help each other in a learning/social experience. Most of the groups in Australia are community based, but there are several, mainly in the capital cities, which do have an affiliation with and receive support from their local University.
How and when did the U3A movement begin?
U3A (University of the Third Age) is a world-wide organisation. It began in France in 1968, when legislation was passed that required universities to provide more community education. In 1973 a highly-rated gerontology course was provided by Toulouse University for local retired people, a course which was extremely successful and which led to the formation of what was to be the first U3A. This organisation was open to anyone over 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.
The British model
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! The late Dr. Peter Laslett (Cambridge University) was responsible for adapting the founding French university sponsored U3A into a community based model which has become known as the “Cambridge Model” of U3A which is common to U3As in Australia. He was also responsible for defining the four “ages of man” in his book A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age. Retirement offered an opportunity to catch up with a lot of activities there had not been time for in the first two stages of life.
This British model of U3A was the one introduced into Australia (Melbourne) in 1984, and has since spread rapidly throughout Australia. There are more than 300 U3A groups in Australia and national membership is growing rapidly. The U3A movement has been identified through academic research as being the fastest-growing adult education movement in Australia.