What is the University of the Third Age (U3A)?
U3A is a nationwide network of learning groups aimed at encouraging older people no longer in full-time employment to share their knowledge, skills and interests in a friendly environment. It is not a university in the conventional sense.
There are no exams and no homework, just regular lessons or study groups of like-minded people with a shared interest in a particular subject. It's learning for its own sake, not with a view to acquiring qualifications.
There are currently more than 270,000 people involved in 820 U3A groups throughout the country.
Who is eligible to take part?
There are no age limits but it goes without saying that U3A attracts the over 50s. Though they vary in size, groups prefer to keep the numbers down because it makes for a more intimate atmosphere. This means that over-subscribed groups sometimes have waiting lists.
Where do I have to go to do it?
Not very far. The whole point of the U3A is to be as accessible as possible, and that includes geographically. Groups meet either at somebody’s home, or in a rented room, say in a local library, church or community centre. The venue is usually determined by the size of the group.
What can I learn?
The range of subjects embraced by the U3A is mind-boggling.
Here are some groups we’ve randomly picked out of individual U3A websites: Stained glass, wine-tasting, piano duets, botany, ambling, country dancing, Latin, Scrabble, bird-watching, lace-making, knitting, genealogy, belly-dancing, crosswords, astronomy, board games, computer skills, horse-riding, military history, kitchen gardening, digital photography, textiles and music appreciation.
Basically if there is enough demand in your area for whichever subject it is you wish to study or practice, you can start up a group yourself.
Does each group have a teacher or leader?
Each group has its own volunteer leader or co-ordinator who has a particular interest or expertise in the given subject.
For language classes, most of the group leaders tend to have specialist knowledge, or they might be native speakers of the language concerned.
What will I get out of it?
The opportunity to meet and befriend other would-be botanists, wine-tasters, lace-makers, French speakers or belly-dancers.
Many groups evolve a strong social side, with trips and get-togethers outside the regular classes. It is clearly a good way to meet people who are on the same wavelength.
What you won’t get out of U3A is a certificate or documented proof that you have achieved a particular level of excellence because that is not what U3A is about.
How much does it cost?
As each U3A is different, offering a variety of skills, it varies, but the membership cost is minimal.
One of the reasons U3A has grown so hugely is that it is much cheaper than most adult education courses.
So what's it like?
Marjorie Shield, a retired college administrator, has been leading a fortnightly French-speaking class in Wimbledon for the past three years:
'The class filled up as soon as it was advertised. We had to turn people away. I always prepare a lesson plan beforehand but I try to keep it as light-hearted and informal as possible. We always have a bit of a laugh. I try to adjust my expectations according to each individual. The last thing I want is for anyone to feel uncomfortable. Nobody is working for an exam, so it doesn’t matter what stage you’re at.'
Kate Watts, a retired health worker, has been attending Marjorie’s class for two years:
'I thought my retirement would be a good opportunity to brush up my French, so I joined a formal language class. But it was much too advanced for me and I felt an idiot. I love coming to Marjorie’s group because it is friendly and relaxed and we all support one another. There is no competitiveness, you can make a fool of yourself and everybody just laughs along with you. I was terrified of coming along at first, but now it is the highlight of my week.'
Pat Lloyd, a retired local government officer, also attends the French group:
'We’re quite a diverse group, all different ages and backgrounds, but I enjoy the company and fellowship enormously. It exercises the brain and gives you a reason to get out and meet people. It’s all too easy when you retire to sit at home watching TV. I doubt if anyone here would be happy to live like that.'
For more information about the University of the Third Age, visit the University of the Third Age website or phone 020 8466 6139 (Lines open Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).