Note:  This article was written in 2003 and figures mentioned reflect the situation at that time.


The Growth of U3As in Australia

Colin Lawton, Adelaide U3A

Universities of the Third Age originated in Toulouse, France, in 1973. They were intended to benefit people in the third age (the age of retirement) by giving them access – at moderate fees – to non-credit courses in the humanities and natural sciences at the established degree-granting universities.  The idea spread rapidly in France and the other countries of continental Europe, and an International Association of Universities of the Third Age was established in 1975.  It now has over 1,700 U3As affiliated from around the world.

However, the French origin of the movement has been reflected in the fact that until 1993 its meetings were conducted only in French and that, as far as I know, U3As which follow the British pattern (as we do in Australia) are only eligible for associate membership, since they are not institutionally part of degree-granting universities.

Beyond Europe, the French model of U3As has found a few bases in universities in Quebec and San Diego, and in several South American countries. In the Netherlands the French model extends to examinations and diplomas, while in Austria U3As are actually associations of mature undergraduates. In Japan there are independent universities for the aged with two-year graduate programs; in China there are over 400 Universities of the aged providing non-credit courses at low cost; and in the U.S.A. and Canada there are more than 180 Institutes of Learning in Retirement, conducted with the assistance of higher education institutions at moderate cost.

The U3A idea was introduced to Britain in 1981 by a group based at the University of Cambridge. As Britain had, since early in the century, provided adult education at a moderate fee, through the co-operation of the universities and the Workers’ Educational Association, the Cambridge group adopted the idea of a self-help university – a kind of intellectual democracy – in which there would be no distinction between teachers and taught. All members would be encouraged to participate, either by teaching, learning, or assisting with planning and administration. This self-help by volunteers would reduce the need for outside resources, and once a person paid the annual membership ($20 - $30 in most cases), no further fee would be charged for enrolment in a course. (Extra payments may be involved at venues where rent is charged, and for lecture notes and textbooks.) Individuals choose subjects from the courses offered, and a teacher in one course may be a student in another course. No entry qualifications are required and no awards are given. University in the title recalls the medieval universities where scholars exchanged knowledge.

The scope of a U3A program depends very much on the networking abilities of a local U3A committee, the size of a suburb, town or city in which it operates, and the realisation by all members that the future life of a U3A depends on their willingness to contribute their particular talents.

As a result of this history, there are now two models of U3A: the French model and the British model. It is the British model that is used in Australia.

The first U3A in Australia was established in Melbourne in 1984 through the hospitality of the Victorian Council of Adult Education, which provided office space for organising and the use of some of its meeting rooms. Over 60 U3As have been formed in Victoria since then.

The University Extension Department of the University of Western Australia took the initiative in establishing U3A in Perth in 1986, and has provided administrative office space and other help, on a continuing basis, for a membership now grown to 700 who live in various parts of metropolitan Perth.

Regional committees arrange courses at a number of local venues and there are a few central activities at the University of WA and the Perth Cultural Centre. There are several other U3As in WA making a state membership of 1300.

The Brisbane College of Advanced Education, and later the Griffith University, provided valuable auspice help for the Brisbane U3A, founded in 1986 and now grown to a few thousand members. Dr Rick Swindell, of the Faculty of Education at Griffith, has become an honorary resource person for the U3A movement in Australia – not least by his editing (with Ken Vassella) of a year-book of current U3As in Australia and New Zealand. Twenty five U3As have been formed in Queensland with a total membership of 12,300. The year-book information is now online – see Page 4.

Sydney U3A started in 1988 with the support of the then Chancellor of the University of Sydney (the late Sir Herman Black) at a large meeting on the university campus. The University offered office space, but the new U3A had great difficulty in recruiting volunteers to handle enquiries when these helpers had to travel from distant suburbs for a couple of hours’ work. This large U3A (now of several thousand members) operates with regional committees who arrange venues for courses held over a large part of the metropolitan area. There is a central administrative office in Young Street, Sydney. U3As started at Wollongong and Shoalhaven in 1987; 41 U3As have been formed in NSW since then.

The ACT U3A was established in 1986. It now has over 2,700 members and holds courses in several different areas of Canberra and its satellite towns. As one might imagine, it has been able to draw on the abilities of numbers of retired professional people for teaching and administration, and on help from the Australian National University and its colleges in finding venues for courses and general meetings.

In Tasmania, the Hobart U3A started in 1990 and now has over 600 members. There are eight other U3As in Tasmania, including the Launceston group which started a local program with the name the School for Seniors in 1981, pre-dating the arrival of U3A. I am not sure whether this School for Seniors was part of the Uniting Church organization of that name, but I think not. State membership is 1,850.

Darwin U3A started in 1990 and has held an Australian conference of U3As. Darwin has 150 members and is the only U3A in the NT.

The first U3A in New Zealand was established at Remuera, Auckland in 1989; and there are now over 40 U3As in NZ.

In Adelaide, following a public meeting in January 1986, we established a U3A steering committee and began six courses by the middle of that year, using space at the University of Adelaide, the Council on the Ageing and two suburban community centres. It was helpful that as I approached retirement from organising adult education at the University of Adelaide, I was able to use my office as an information centre for people enquiring about membership of U3A. When in mid-1986 I retired and took on duties as secretary of Adelaide U3A, we were very glad to find a small rent-free office at the SA Council on the Ageing. Adelaide U3A moved to rented rooms in 28 Franklin Street, Adelaide in 1990, and in 1995 to 38 Currie Street, Adelaide. Since 1999 Adelaide U3A has been at 186B Pulteney Street, Adelaide.

As enquiries came in from outer suburban areas of Adelaide, we decided to encourage the formation of local U3As which would not involve people in travelling to the city centre or the inner suburbs. While Adelaide fairly soon had 200 members, new U3As were starting at Noarlunga, Port Adelaide, Tea Tree Gully, and Gawler. The South Coast U3A started in 1987 following an enquiry from Sylvia Jobling, a social worker at the Community Health Service at the South Coast Hospital. There followed a meeting to explain the U3A movement to representatives of several older persons organizations, and a public meeting at the RSL hall a month or two later.

There are now fourteen U3As in SA: Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Gawler-Barossa, Tea Tree Gully, Noarlunga, Flinders University, South Coast, Mt Gambier, Aldinga, Playford, Strathalbyn, Whyalla, Adelaide Hills, and Salisbury. In the 1980s we held several state conferences. In recent years U3As in SA have been meeting six-monthly when representatives share reports from occasional U3A interstate conferences, and consult about matters such as venues for courses, sources of discussion group material, spreading the U3A movement, and arrangements for public risk insurance and insurance for volunteer leaders and committee members. Adelaide U3A now has 950 members and the total membership of U3As in the state is about 2,700.

In Victoria, where there are over 60 U3As, a U3A Network has been established with a part-time paid office assistant, funded by state government grant and capitation fees from the member U3As. Several meetings of representatives are held each year, and the office helps with the organization of annual conferences and publishes a newsletter. The Network Office and its executive committee also assist people interested in starting new U3As. State membership is almost 17,000.

In NSW there is a State Council of the 43 U3As, with similar aims to the Victorian Network, which has a voluntary secretary. NSW state membership is over 14,000. Elsewhere state meetings are convened by individual U3As,

Conferences which have attracted U3A members to confer on a national basis have been held in Melbourne (1988), Adelaide (1992), Canberra (1995), Sunshine Coast (1996), Darwin (1997), Sydney (1998), New Zealand (1999) and Melbourne (2001). Attendance at such meetings, or reading the proceedings has been of considerable help to U3A committee members, particularly in states where a network organization does not exist.

Examples of information gained at these conferences are Bairnsdale U3A’s proposal to the local council to have its name and badge on the service club notice-boards in the town; Caulfield U3A’s practice of video-taping some courses for the benefit of members who are housebound; the action of the City of Hawthorn (Vic.) in providing an office for the Hawthorn U3A and venues for courses; the valuable help Adelaide U3A has had from the City of Unley in our continuous free use for sixteen years of rooms at their large Fullarton Community Centre; and the opportunities for U3A members to audit, at no cost, undergraduate lectures at the University of Southern Queensland and the Sunshine Coast University College.

The possibility of some national organization for the 165 U3As (with over 51,000 members) in Australia has been discussed at several conferences but (a) the preoccupations of local U3As with their own programs and (b) the difficulties presumed in achieving meetings of such organization (distances and travelling costs etc.) have deterred people from coming to any agreement. In Britain a Third Age Trust, supported by the 310 or so U3As and several educational foundations, has an annual conference, a newspaper, and a paid national field officer. It also has established subject networks in the Arts, Creative Writing, Genealogy, Science and Technology, Languages, and Bird-watching, through which U3As exchange information of interest to course leaders.

The spread of the U3A movement can be helped by state organizations, as in Victoria and NSW, and by advice from large metropolitan U3As, as in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. But our experience in Adelaide U3A has led me to the view that in country areas, in some cases, there needs to be a “missionary visit” extending over a week or so, when a committee member from an established U3A can speak to local organizations (including TAFE and local government), and seek interviews with the local newspaper and radio and television stations. Even then, one must ascertain the talents and organisational experience of local older residents, for it is no use forming a U3A unless a few courses can be offered following the initial public meeting.

At both Port Pirie and Port Lincoln strong interest in a U3A has been expressed by potential students, but this has not been complemented by suggestions of possible course leaders. As a result there are no U3As at these centres.

Initially there was a similar problem at Whyalla, but thanks to the assistance of the local campus of the University of SA, venues have been made available, and leadership of several courses has been offered by retired university staff. One needs to bear in mind the cost of sending one or two U3A missionaries to new areas. Perhaps such costs could be provided by contributions from existing U3As, or a grant from the Office of the Ageing.

For those who cannot attend U3A courses for reasons of distance or disability a national body, U3A Online, provides U3A courses to such people provided they have access to the Internet. Courses in the humanities and sciences, such as the History of Ideas, Philosophy, Astronomy, Religions, Psychology and World Affairs are available to people who become members at $16 a year. The website and email address are on Page 4.

The question of what should be taught in U3A courses is always fascinating. Some people believe that whether a course deals with gardening, square dancing, yoga, French language or Australian history, it requires concentration and will have a benefit to health either through physical activity or the satisfaction of knowledge gained. My own view is that I would not be enthusiastic about courses in tap dancing or Swedish massage (in the program of Sunshine Coast U3A), largely because in SA we have organizations such as Recreation for Older Adults and the Australian Retired Persons Association, and that we should refer people interested in such programs to the appropriate organization. It may well be that ROA and ARPA do not exist in Queensland.

Courses on political systems and current political issues do not seem to be listed frequently in the programs of many Australian U3As, and probably this reflects a lack of leaders for such courses. I hope this lack can be remedied in part by discussion group notes on Citizenship and the Australian Political System, available from Adult Learning Australia (see page 4). These were published following the 1994 report of the Civics Expert Group, which found low levels of political and civic knowledge in our nation.

A conference of the International Federation of U3As in Finland (1994) was concerned with (a) ethical questions arising from government decisions which affect the autonomy of older people and (b) the role of retirement preparation in the improvement of quality of life. In promoting the growth of the U3A movement our members need, for instance, to be aware of the 1997 report of the Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee on Developments in Adult and Community Education (entitled Beyond Cinderella). This recommended “that the Commonwealth Government urge State and Territory education authorities to develop guidelines for the accessible and affordable use of public education facilities (e.g. accommodation) by bona fide adult and community education providers”. Other recommendations of the Senate Committee dealt with developing best practice in pre-retirement education, and a research program on the relationship between intellectual activities and good health.

The concerns of the International Federation of U3As have applications in the current Australian political discussions about health care, and the future size of the social security budget. It is my hope that the knowledge we acquire by our membership of U3A, and the many discussions we have with fellow members, will develop our effectiveness as citizens in promoting the recommendations of the Senate Committee, and in other ways increasing our political awareness.

References :

R. Swindell and J. Thompson, - An International Perspective on the University of the Third Age in Educational Gerontology, Vol. 21 No. 5. (July – August 1995)

Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee, - Beyond Cinderella (Towards a Learning Society) April 1997.

R. Swindell and K. Vassella, - U3As in Australia and New Zealand, Griffith University, Brisbane, 1997