‘Any town that has a U3A has a real jewel’

National U3A chairwoman Barbara Lewis visits Todmorden U3A next week
National U3A chairwoman Barbara Lewis visits Todmorden U3A next week

Academia’s loss was hundreds of communities gain when University of the Third Age began in Britain three decades ago, says national chairwoman Barbara Lewis.

September 18 will be a red letter day for Todmorden University of the Third Age, when they welcome Barbara as their special guest at September’s monthly meeting at Central Methodist Church, Todmorden.

Barbara believes the day United Kingdom universities turned down the opportunity to copy the founding French model was a cloud with a definite silver lining, the result being a string of autonomously run U3As which have an unrivalled freedom to develop how members want them to.

The result has been an increase in “third age” enjoyment and learning that has proved extremely popular, with the Todmorden group, which has members from Corbnholme to Mytholmroyd, surpassing 300 in just six years.

“The movement began about 40 years ago in France but their model of U3As is attached very much to universities. When our founding fathers began in 1981-82, they went to the universities as well - they too were academics - but the universities didn’t want to know because they didn’t want to pay for it, nor did the Government.

“So the three founders sat down and said ‘we’re going to do it ourselves,’” she said.

Now there are 936 U3As with 320,000 members, she said, and although they have to abide by the principals and aims set down by the founders, the result has been a method of learning which comes directly from its membership, covering an amazing spectrum of subjects.

From Rochester, New York, but resident in England for 40 years, Barbara says U3A came along at exactly the right time, catering for both men and women when people were living longer.

“It serves purpose for people no longer in full time employment. We don’t tell each U3A what their study groups shouild be, they do it themselves. The founders realised that ‘those who will teach will learn and those who will learn will teach’. In the third age we have all the abilities to do that.

“The idea is that we learn from each other and along the way we have a lot of fun doing it - that’s crucial. What people also discover is camaraderie.

“At groups I visit you can see the diversity - they come up with everything from table tennis to philosophy,” said Barbara, who is still a study group leader at her own group near Watford.

Barbara is sure that will be much in evidence when she arrives at Todmorden. “I’m looking forward to my visit to Todmorden U3A. Active for six years now, they have gone from strength to strength.

“I will walk into Todmorden but probably won’t know anybody there but I can bet that once I’ve gone in and looked around it will look and sound like my own U3A - the chatter and the buzz.

“When I walk into any U3A branch as guest I feel at home, all over the country. It’s a wonderful feeling. “Any town, village or citythat has a U3A has a real jewel in their heart.”