University of the Third Age

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Logo of the University of the Third Age
Logo of the University of the Third Age

The University of the Third Age is an international organisation whose aims are the education and stimulation of mainly retired members of the community - those in their third 'age' of life. It is commonly referred to as U3A.

One British 'definition' of what "The Third Age" means for U3A participants is -"U3A membership is not related to a specific age but to a period in one’s life (the third age) after the second age of full-time employment and parental responsibility. Anybody in their third age can join U3A and this includes people who are working part-time. There is no lower age for membership."[1]



U3A started in France at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Toulouse in 1973. It was started by Prof. Pierre Vellas. In France the Third Age University is mostly associated with a local university. This academic model is used in many other countries, in particular in continental Europe.

UK & Commonwealth[edit]

Carrick, Cornwall U3A walking group on a scenic walk.

By the early 1980s, the scheme reached the United Kingdom where its nature was radically changed to be more a self-help organisation. This model is also used in Australia, Cyprus, Dominica, New Zealand and South Africa.

In the British model it is acknowledged that retired people have a lifetime of experience and, collectively, a vast amount of knowledge. This is used to arrange a syllabus for each subject where each meeting is normally led by a member of the group with specialist knowledge. Each U3A group pays a capitation fee to the national coordinating body, and has access to a vast range of resources including a multi-media lending library, special interest newsletters and contacts with other groups with similar interests. Summer schools are held by special interest groups. Most importantly, each Group is an absolutely autonomous entity, self-financing and self-managing. Most groups are regional in nature, and this has led to the creation in some countries of variations on the U3A. For example in Cyprus there is a U3A, an organisation called C3A (Cyprus Third Age), which is affiliated to the UK U3A, and P3A (Paphos Third Age).

Central and Eastern Europe[edit]

Some Central (and Eastern) European countries were introduced to the U3A quite early: Poland, Czech Republic (former Czechoslovakia) and above all Slovenia. The Slovenian Third Age University was started by two university teachers in 1984 and has developed into a network of forty universities over the entire country.

There is Online Third Age University in Russia


U3A commenced in Melbourne Australia in 1984. From that beginning it has developed into 250 U3As with approximately 85,000 members (as at 2013). 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 [ For example, see which also has links to other State Networks].

In 1998 U3A Online [1] 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 2009, U3A Online published a paper entitled "Educational initiatives for the elderly". The paper contains contributions from a number of U3A leaders from around the world outlining the status of U3A and U3A-like organisations in different countries. That paper, and other peer-reviewed research studies based on the Successful Ageing model, are freely available from

Virtual University of the Third Age[edit]

On 1 January 2009, after four years of experiments and testing, the Virtual University of the Third Age (vU3A) was launched at this site: [2] with the intention of offering the same friendship, support and learning enjoyed by terrestrial groups. vU3A is open to anyone, in particular those who, by circumstances of isolation, health problems or other restrictions, cannot get to a U3A group. There is a small fee.

Volunteers run the entire operation, including teaching, in cyberspace. 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.


Nunawading U3A Belly Dancing Group at the 2012 Carnival of Learning at Federation Square, Melbourne.

Typical courses include, educationally, Art, Classical Studies, Conversation, Computers, Crafts, Debate, Drama, History, Languages, Literature, Music, Sciences, Social Sciences, Philosophy, etc. Some study groups do not have a prepared syllabus, but draw on reports of current affairs in their topic subject to prompt conversation and research. Some groups are designed to cross disciplinary boundaries, for example, combining Society, Technology and Science in a fashion not practical in more formal academic environments. U3A groups are well positioned to conduct serious research into local history and genealogy. For example, a group in Eyemouth collected and exhibited many photographs of life and work in the district over the years. Some groups aim to bridge the generation gap in the field of information technology opening up an exciting new world to many who might have been oblivious of it otherwise. Internet marketing is especially important for members in more remote locations. There are also many less-educational activities - 'Games', including bridge tuition and duplicate bridge playing groups; 'Health, Fitness & Leisure', including countryside walks, Theatre/Concert Clubs, Travel Clubs, Dance in all its forms etc.


Many U3As publish local newsletters as do some of the special interest networks. In the UK the Third Age Trust, the national coordinating body in the UK, publishes a national magazine. "Third Age Matters" five times per year plus an educational bulletin, "Sources", for subscribing U3A members three times annually.

The U3A can also provide a valuable resource in considering many local and national issues. Membership includes many with experience and expertise in almost all walks of life and letters. Although strictly non-political, U3A members have time to reflect in a mature fashion on such topics as the operation of public services, crime and punishment, the future of energy supplies, public funding of the arts and so on, and can reply to invitations to engage in public consultations with carefully considered and argued responses.


Midwinter, E (2004) "500 Beacons:The U3A Story" publisher Third Age Press UK Midwinter,E (2014) "500 Beacons: The U3A Story" for KINDLE. publisher Thirt Age Press UK

  • Formosa, M. (2000). "Older adult education in a Maltese University of the Third Age: A critical perspective". Education and Ageing, 15(3): 315-339.
  • Formosa, M. (2005). "Feminism and critical educational gerontology: An agenda for good practice". Ageing International, 30(4): 396-411.
  • Formosa, M. (2007). "A Bourdieusian interpretation of the University of the Third Age in Malta". Journal of Maltese Education Research, 4(2): 1-16.
  • Formosa, M. (2009). "Renewing Universities of the Third Age: Challenges and visions for the future". Recerca, 9 : 171-196.
  • Formosa, M. (2010). "Lifelong learning in later life: The Universities of the Third Age". Lifelong Learning Institute Review, 5: 1-12.
  • Midwinter, Eric C. (1984), Mutual aid universities: a self-help approach to educating older people, Routledge, ISBN 0-7099-3523-4 
  • Swindell, R. & Thompson, J. (1995). "An international perspective of the University of the Third Age". Educational Gerontology, 21(5), 429-447.
  • Swindell, R. (2002). "U3A Online: a virtual university of the third age for isolated older people". International Journal of Lifelong Education 21(5), 414-429.
  • Szeloch, H. (2011). "Na naukę nigdy nie jest za późno". "Nowe Życie", (445)9: 11-12.


External links[edit]