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History of U3A - THE U3A STORY

The following synopsis was created by Brian Groombridge, July 2003.


With a warning & thanks

'The University of the Third Age in Britain has been launched more times than a rubber boat in a high wind" - Dianne Norton, 1984.

The U3A has been such a success that there are inevitably many colourful stories about its origins. I have tried in the following to be as accurate and fair as possible. The broad outlines are reasonably clear.

I have used documents from the time and benefited from the help of Audrey Cloet, Hilary Greenwood, Sidney Jones, Eric Midwinter, Dianne Norton, Anthony Tomei, Mary Wane and Cynthia Wyld.


1960 The National Institute of Adult Education and the Nuffield Foundation initiate a pioneering enquiry. NIAE publishes Education and Retirement: an Enquiry into the Relevance of Education to the Enjoyment of Leisure in Later Life, by Brian Groombridge.

1975 Education for the Elderly, Sidney Jones, (North London Polytechnic), The Technical Journal (June and July issues).

1976 Liberation of the Elders, Sidney Jones, Beth Johnson Foundation and Department of Adult Education, University of Keele, Stoke-on-Trent.

1976 and after: An informal group explores ways to open up educational opportunities for older people. They include Aleda Erskine (Adult Education Officer, Help the Aged), Dr Frank Glendenning (Keele University Department of Adult Education and Beth Johnson), Sally Greengross (Deputy Director, Age Concern England), Brian Groombridge (Professor of Adult Education, London University), Edward Hutchinson (Director, National Institute of Adult Education), Prof David James (Surrey University Department of Adult Education), Sidney Jones, (North London Polytechnic), Dr Peter Laslett (Director, Cambridge University Historical Demography Group) Dianne Norton (Age Concern England), William Tyler (Principal, Manchester College of Adult Education), and Ian Walker (Norfolk Adult Education Service).

1978 Sidney Jones visits Elderhostel events in the USA, returns with increased conviction that the UK needs something of the kind.


1972 Prof Pierre Vellas, University of Toulouse, organises experimental summer school for retired citizens of Toulouse. It is a great success.

1973 University of Toulouse formally decides to set up the first Universite du Troisieme Age.


1978 Two exploratory missions to France

"Peter Laslett (supported by Elmgrant) to L'Universite du Troisieme Age, Caen;

'"Brian Groombridge (as guest of Mary Wane at the British Council in Parts):c UTAs at Paris X Nanterre, Grenoble and Lyon, accompanied by Cynthia Wyld (Administrator, Beth Johnson Foundation).

All three return enthusiastic and convinced that this is the model to build on and adapt for this country. Their news is welcomed by the informal group of colleagues exploring possibilities of expanding opportunities for learning in later life.

1980 Educating our Elders', Peter Laslett, provocative article in New Society; 13 March.


1978 - 1982 Support for the idea developed in Keele and the University of Surrey as well as in Cambridge and London. Those involved include Dr Mark Abrams (Age Concern). Prof David James (Surrey University), Dr Frank Glendenning (Keele and Beth Johnson), Dr Chris Phillipson (Keele University Department of Adult Education). Peter Shea (senior lecturer, Department of Extra Mural Studies, London University), Mannes Tidmarsh (Sheffield Polytechnic), and Cynthia Wyld (Beth Johnson)
London-Keele-Lyon-Grenoble Summer Schools organised with UTA colleagues in France and the UK for UTA members and retired UK adult education students.

1979 - 81 French links reinforced by Patncia Floriet (UTA, Grenoble), Helene Reboul (UTA. Lyon), Maximilienne Gautrat (UTA, Paris X Nanterre), Brian Groombridge, and others. Co-operation between the two countries benefits from the work and ideas of Prof. Michel Philibert (University of Grenoble and Grenoble UTA) internationally well-connected cc-director of the Centre Pluridisciplinaire De Gerontologie, Peter Laslett's philosophical opposite number.

1980 Michael Young, Director of the Institute of Community Studies, Bethnal Green, shows interest in the U3A idea, consults Peter Laslett and Brian Groombridge They encourage him to become actively involved.

1980 Autumn Anglo-French conference at Wye College, 'Learning, Education and Later Life', supported by UNESCO, the British Council and the Department of Education and Science Publishes the Wye Declaration a statement of principles and policy by Brian Groombridge. Published in Adult Education, National Institute of Adult Education, London, and in a French translation in Gerontologie by Michel Philibert.

1981 January: The informal group gets properly established as FREE - the Forum for the Right of Elders to Education, co-ordinated by Dianne Norton, Age Concern. First FREE meeting hosted by Sidney Jones at the North London Polytechnic. Advocates opportunities for older people in the state system and through broadcasting as well as through self-help.

1981 April: Sidney Jones with Help the Aged support starts Learning In Later Life course at North London Polytechnic. Stella Rosenak starts something similar at Middlesex Polytechnic.


1981 February Peter Laslett convenes meeting in Cambridge at which eminent social scientists, including Michael Young and Eric Midwinter, Director of the Centre for Policy on Ageing, support proposal to start a U3A in the UK.

1981 Meeting of the enthusiasts (members of FREE and others), organised by the Nuffield Foundation and the Centre for Policy on Ageing (Director, Eric Midwinter) favours formation of a University of the Third Age in Britain. Bid for grant aid undertaken by Eric Midwinter.

1981 July 20: Follow-up exploratory Cambridge meeting to discuss the proposed UK U3A . Addressed by Michel PhiIibert.

1981 October Bid to the Nuffield Foundation succeeds. A grant (£9000) is credited to the Centre for Policy on Ageing.

1981 Christian and Voluntary Service makes a similar grant to the proposed U3A in London, credited to the Department of Extra-Mural Studies, London University.

1981 July 21 Eric Midwinter broadcasts about the U3A in Radio 4's "You and Yours'. Four hundred interested listeners write in. Letters from London and the South East are forwarded to Brian Groombrldge, as Director of London University's Extra Mural Department; the rest are handled by Dianne Norton. Several retired men and women now join in as equal partners in planning the new enterprise. Increasing agreement leads to decision that the U3A in the UK should be a self -help study circle organisation, not based in the university system as in France.

`R show that would run and run' (Eric Mid winter)

1981 August Peter Laslett drafts the U3A's foundation document: Objects, Principles and Institutional Forms followed by a shorter version, All our Futures. Michael Young drafts the Articles of Association through the Institute of Community Studies.

1982 March 3: U3A in London holds its first Steering Committee meeting, with Peter Shea, London University Extra-Mural Department, Sidney Jones, Dr Tony Warnes (King's College, London), and retired people (including Pat Kisch and Jean Tait) chaired by Brian Groombridge.

1982 Experimental Easter School in Cambridge a success. Organisers decide to set up Cambridge U3A and run first study groups. Embryonic national committee formed, Chairman, Michael Young; General Secretary, Eric Midwinter Peter Laslett, philosopher- in-chief; and Dianne Norton, Executive Secretary. The Nuffield Foundation's grant divided: £3200 to start the Cambridge U3A, the rest to support the formation of a national movement.

1982 September 24: U3A in London formally constituted at preliminary public meeting. Participants include students from Sidney Jones's North London Poly Learning in Later Life course. Members' Committee, chaired by Hill Slavid announces and launches first trial study groups.

1982 September national relaunch of the U3A by the National Committee published DIY manual for setting up new U3As. Thirteen U3As, geographically quite widespread, at different stages of development, including those started in Harpenden, Stevenage, Sutton Coldfield, and Yeovil.

1983 January. First U3A in London 'Learning/Teaching' Study Groups start at North London Poly, in English Literature, French, History and History of Art. In April, the programme expands to include psychology, music, and politics and current affairs

1983 June 27: Formal relaunch U3A in London at a packed meeting, Polytechnic of Central London, Regent Street. Recruits 887 members by the end of the year.

1983 National conference attended by thirty of forty groups in planning stage or just starting. London and 6 other U3As (Barnstaple, Nottingham, Oxford Wakefield, West Midlands and Yeovil) join the new national body.

1989 Farnborough & District U3A


1982 Sidney Jones completes Learning and Meta-Learning with Special Reference to Education for the Elders . Awarded doctorate by London University

1982 Age is Opportunity: education and older people, Eric Midwinter, Centre for Policy on Ageing, London.

1983 `FREE MANIFESTO', advocates equal access to the public education system as well as self-help study organisations, drafted by Peter Laslett, signed by Joanna Bornat, Frank Glendenning, Sally Greengross, Brian Groombridge, Sidney Jones, Peter Laslett, Eric Midwinter, Dianne Norton 'William Tyler, and Ian Walker.

1984 Mutual Aid Universities, Eric Midwinter (ed), Croom Helm, Beckenham

1989 A Fresh Map of Life, Peter Laslett, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

Brian Groombridge, July 2003.

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