The University of the Third Age

Listed on May 14, 2014 in Blogs!

The U3A is a brilliant self-organising concept worthy of The Big Society. Ever since its first faltering steps way back in 1981 the organisation has grown from strength to strength and is now pretty much well established all over the country. Of course, its real strength comes from the commitment and enthusiasm of its members who throughout the year organise courses under the overarching aegis. Inevitably there may be issues of quality, progression and ambition but these should not distract from the contribution the idea makes in bringing people together through the activity of learning together. Recently I was engaged in a debate about the U3A and whether it undermines the more professional offerings made by county adult education services or indeed the residential colleges like Dillington, Knuston, Alston and Higham. Doing things on the cheap (as the U3A does) is always going to be attractive to both participants and the authorities who are having to cut budgets and make difficult decisions. But that said, the old adage of ‘you get what you pay for‘ also pertains. You could liken the U3A to the nursery slopes of more ambitious learning adventures and also see it as keeping the show on the road. Of course the best provision in adult learning is always scrupulously prepared and organised. The arrangements are always carefully considered. The tutor is always an experienced in the teaching of adults and is an expert who has throughly researched the subject and structured the material in a particular way. Discussing their experience with some U3A members only a few days ago I got the distinct impression that what I have just described was far from the case. My conclusion has to be that those working in the residential adult education colleges have nothing to fear from the ‘cheapo-cheapo’ version of adult learning.

One final comment. It is interesting that the U3A emerged from initial meetings held in Trinity College, Cambridge. The very same college that Pastor Grundtvig stayed in during his visits in the 1830s before returning to Denmark to found the Folk High School movement. Out of this grew something extraordinary and eventually the British residential adult education colleges – now, sadly, a much depleted sector. For Grundtvig it was learning together in a residential social setting that proved so powerful. That is what they still do at Trinity and what we do at Dillington and elsewhere.