U3A was founded in Toulouse, France, in 1972. Its university began to provide educational opportunities for older adults and this proved very successful and soon spread to other European countries.
By 1981 the idea was taken to Britain by Dr Peter Laslett of Cambridge University who saw a need for community based groups, rather than university affiliated ones, so, U3A became a movement based on self-help and mutual aid and this became known as the Cambridge or British model. The aim of all U3As, whether the French university style or British community based, is to encourage older people who remain active in their retirement to continue lifelong learning. In the British style, which Australia follows, one day you can be a group leader and the next a group member. All are encouraged to contribute voluntarily to the running of their U3A in some way.
Around the world there are now millions of members. Not all call themselves U3As or Universities of the Third Age. In China they are known as Seniors Universities and in the USA, Institutes of Learning in Retirement. The ancient understanding of the word “university” is “a community of scholars” and in this sense, University of the Third Age is a very apt name.
In 1985, Australian U3A had its beginning in Melbourne, Dr. Jack McDonell offered the first programme and U3A in Australia has continued to grow since then. There are now over 30 U3As in Queensland and more than 200 Australia-wide with many thousands of members. We have the largest membership per capita of any other country in the world.