What is the U3A?

In 2017 the University of the Third Age celebrated the formation of its 1000th group, a recognition and celebration of the desire of people entering their Third Age to continue to learn.

The U3A started in 1981 when Cambridge academic, Peter Laslett floated the idea to start an association to offer such opportunities. There had been a similar group in France linked to a University but rebuffed by universities in the UK, Laslett and his friends looked at other models and decided they wanted groups of people to get together to learn whatever interested them. There would be no formal teachers but a group leader or convenor, who could co-ordinate and help guide their own efforts, or the group could be self-led. A BBC Radio interview brought an enthusiastic response and the movement was set in train. Local U3As, they decided, were to be self-governing, and open to all Third Agers; their purpose must be educational in its widest sense, which embraced leisure pursuits and social purposes, without exams or awards.

Each local group is a member of The Third Age Trust (a registered charity and limited company), which provides support and advice to all local U3A groups. A key principle of the U3A is that learning is by the members, for the members and that we are all volunteers who give our services entirely without payment of any kind.

Since the early days the association has branched out and as well as local groups there are regional Study Meetings and National Summer Schools and the U3A has taken off in many different countries.
Most have Monthly Meetings, which bring members together in a variety of ways, such as talks, quizzes, demonstrations and visits. The number and type of groups vary enormously reflecting local enthusiasms. The self-teach ethos has given people the opportunity to pass on their own knowledge and for members to explore a range of topics, some of which may be entirely new to them.

The national organisation has stepped into the digital age and MOOCS (online learning courses), as well as a network of specialist subject advisors, exist to help advance the learning process. The national website www.u3a.org.uk contains a wealth of information and resources for all members.

In 1990 Farnham formed its own U3A and now has more than 1400 members and 100 different groups, covering more than 70 subjects. Whilst adopting the universal formula, Farnham introduced an Annual Theme, to unite members from different groups, a concept which has been copied elsewhere.

While most U3As meet in each other’s homes and in halls, we in Farnham are fortunate to have our “own campus”, in the form of the Maltings. We have many enthusiastic leaders and secretaries but are always on the lookout for more!

A Short History Of Farnham U3A

Farnham U3A owes its birth to a remarkable ex army officer Tony Collyer. Tony and his wife Joan joined Guildford U3A in 1984 after his retirement. By 1990 the Guildford had grown far too big so Tony decided to start a Farnham branch. He put a notice in the Farnham Herald describing the concept of the U3A and inviting people to a meeting to be held at the Maltings early in January 1991 and 204 people enrolled – a splendid result.

On February 8th The Farnham Herald carried a report and pictures with the headline ‘Fantastic start for U3A’- the classes then as now were held at The Maltings. We are extremely fortunate in Farnham to have the Maltings as our campus. The vast majority of U3a’s have to use member’s homes, church halls, village halls etc for their meetings.
Tony Collyer of course was chairman and he had a full committee supporting him. The first meeting was on Monday 11th January and it was, in effect a monthly meeting. with Tony as the speaker. Monthly Meetings are a feature of British U3As. It’s a way of bringing the various groups together whilst listening to an interesting talk and socialising. For a number of years our meetings included a complimentary tea or coffee and biscuits until a Treasurer, who shall be nameless, said that we couldn’t afford it!

Back to January 1991 – the classes offered were; Philosophy, essential for my research; Play Reading, Music Appreciation, Poetry, Art History, Geology, French, Italian and German, led by Rosa Knowles, who is still an active member of our U3A – by March Calligraphy and Needlecraft had been added and in May Rosemary Wisbey made her first appearance with The Novel, Eileen Bird started her Bell Ringing Group – for years they entertained us at our Christmas Party, then held in the Memorial Hall.

By Sept 1992 a number of new classes appeared – Painting in Oils, Photography, English Drama, Creative Writing, Spanish, Ramblers, Yoga, Farnham Oral History, Bridge and Travelogue and the first Group leaders meeting was held. In 1993 a further five classes were added – Dress making, Music for Pleasure, Personal Finance, History of the Crusades, Botany, Food Sciences. Mediaeval Architecture, World Religions, Choir, Current Affairs. In 1993 Bob Beattie started his Scottish Country Dancing group and Tony Collyer and his wife Joan were enthusiastic dancers – other new groups were
Extend to Music and Music for Pleasure Travel Club, Theatre Club and Concert Club.
Elizabeth McDonald started her very popular Shakespeare group – now being led for the eight years by the wonderful Mary Bell. In 1994 Molly Puddephat started the Choir.
In 1995 Science for the Citizen started, led by Trevor Williams, and ran for 18 years, mainly with outside speakers from various Universities.

I am now going to move forward to 1997 which was the year that Tony Collyer retired from the Chair, documented again by the Farnham Herald. By then our U3a had 750 members. The chairmanship is a three year appointment so I cannot account for the fact that Tony served for so long, but I want to concentrate on his achievements. During his six years in the chair he was instrumental in setting up other branches in Alton, Fleet, Haslemere, and Petersfield. After retirement he became Chair of the Regional West Surrey/East Hants committee and continued his efforts to start new U3a’s so that in total he was involved in the formation of 21 new U3A’s.

Farnham U3A can be justly proud of our founder Chairman. In 1997 Farnham Rotary gave him an award for outstanding voluntary service. All of us who knew him enjoyed his enthusiasm, persuasion, energy and passion.

I am grateful to Tony Price, a founder member who subsequently served for two terms as Chairman, and for years as Class Manager, for his collection of old newsletters and programmes.

Eileen Williams