History of U3A worldwide

University of the Third Age – Profile

The U3A is an international movement that aims to further lifelong learning and the enjoyment of life for mainly retired members of the community—those in their third ‘age’ of life. The ‘Third Age’ is the stage of life reached after the Second Age of working life and home making. For many, the Third Age provides opportunities to spread their wings and do things they could only dream about when they had work and family responsibilities.

There is no universally accepted model for the U3A. Its original conception in France as an extramural university activity was significantly modified in the United Kingdom where it was recognised that most people of retirement age have something to contribute and the emphasis has been on sharing, without formal educational links. Many English-speaking countries have followed this geragogic model, whereas continental European countries have mostly followed the French model. For historical reasons, lifelong learning institute is the term used in the United States for those similar to U3A groups.


U3A started in France at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Toulouse in 1973, started by Professor Pierre Vellas. These days, each University group is mostly associated with a local university. This academic model is used in many other countries, particularly in continental Europe. The university affiliation generates various opportunities such as highly qualified teaching personnel, a variety of subject choices, opportunity for students and faculty to conduct research based on the professional, cultural or historical experiences of the elderly, etc. U3As do not issue diplomas but rather certificates and teach in many fields according to the interests of the groups of older students (usually 55+) such as computer skills, languages, entrepreneurship, hereditary law, religion, politics, etc. Sometimes U3As provide groups with vocational training and formal continuous education opportunities.

In the 1990s the concept was broadened in France to the notion of the University of All Ages (UTA – université tous âges) or University of Free Time (UTL – université du temps libre).[2] The UFUTA changed its name to Union Française des Universités de Tous Ages. Some French university departments have adopted the title of Université du Temps Libre.

AIUTA (Association Internationale des Universités du Troisième Âge), https://aiu3a.org/, is the global international organisation and network of Universities of the Third Age, including such institutions from most continental European countries, Central and East Europe, China, Russia, Latin America, etc., including Mauritius and other destinations. The President of AIUTA is prof. François Vellas from the University of Toulouse, son of Pierre Vellas, the founder of the first U3A.

By the early 1980s, the concept reached the United Kingdom, where its nature was radically changed to be more a self-help organisation under the influence of its founders, Peter Laslett, Michael Young and Eric Midwinter. The UK network comprises in excess of 1,000 groups, in towns and cities; as of January 2020 total membership exceeded 450,000.

Each U3A is formally structured as an independent self-financing and self-managing charity with links to the Third Age Trust, a national coordinating body. Each individual U3A comprises a number of activity groups which may cover a wide range of different topics – e.g. arts, languages, physical activity, discussion, and games.[8] Most U3A’s are centred on a particular town or region and their activity groups meet in a hired hall or small groups meet in a member’s house. There is some provision for members to take part in activities over the internet. There is general agreement that not only physical but intellectual activity enrich and prolong life in the later years. Although primarily for the retired, many U3As open their membership to any people not in full-time employment, thus becoming more inclusive and widening the age range of the membership.

In 2009 the Virtual University of the Third Age (vU3A) was launched with the intention of offering the same friendship, support and learning enjoyed by off-line groups. vU3A is affiliated to the Third Age Trust in the UK. vU3A is open to anyone, in particular those who, by circumstances of isolation, health problems or other restrictions, cannot get to a U3A group.

Some groups in other countries affiliate to the Third Age Trust. For example, in Cyprus there are C3A (Cyprus Third Age) and P3A (Paphos Third Age).

Some Central (and Eastern) European countries were introduced to the U3A quite early: Poland, Czech Republic (formerly part of Czechoslovakia) and Slovenia. The Slovenian University of the Third Age was started by two university professors in 1984 and has developed into a network of 40 universities over the entire country.The Italian University of the Third Age is called Università delle Tre Età (UNITRE) with several locations in the country. “UNITRE Milano”, the university of the third age in Milan, provides courses as well as educational content such as on line courses and peer reviewed journal articles.

There is an online University of the Third Age in Russia at http://u3a.niuitmo.ru/.

In Australia, the first U3A began in Melbourne in 1984 and has grown in each State, with more than 100,000 members nationally. These are based in metropolitan, regional and rural areas, and follow the British self-help model of teaching and learning over a wide range of subject areas, dependent upon the membership’s own expertise, knowledge and skills.

U3As in New South Wales, Victoria, the Australian Capital territory, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia have formed state networks to support the U3As in their state or territory with a range of resources. Each Network has its own website from which local U3As can be located.

In 1998, U3A Online was started to provide cognitively challenging virtual courses for isolated older people from any country. Since then the initiative has been widened to include any person who regards themselves as being in their third age. More than 35 courses, all written and taught by volunteer experts from various countries, are available.

In Canada, the Third Age Network (TAN) is very active in Canada, however currently only within the province of Ontario. With head office at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University in Toronto, the network started in 2007 and has grown to 21 groups in 2018. Simon Fraser University was the first university in North America to create a series of specially designed courses for seniors at the post-secondary level. Its mandate was to provide educational programs for older adults that were responsive to their unique psychological and physiological characteristics.

In the United States, organizations similar to U3A are called lifelong learning institutes.

Membership of U3A

U3A courses and classes are designed and delivered specifically to meet the needs of people in their third age. The third age refers to the life period of active retirement, which follows the first age of childhood and formal education and the second age of working life, and which precedes the fourth age of dependence.

The U3A membership is $40 per calendar year. Name badges are available for $10.

To join U3A, go to the Membership pages where you may also enrol online in the classes. For your annual membership fee you can attend as many classes/activities as you wish. There are no examinations.

Notionally, classes are all free. However many venue locations have a cost for U3A to use, and so many classes have a small term fee to help cover that venue cost.

Each January, U3A Sunshine Coast runs an Open Day where you can see displays of most of the classes, and meet the tutors.