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Event celebrating 40 years of the University of the Third Age (U3A) held at Cambridge Union





The University of the Third Age (U3A) is celebrating 40 years since it was established in Cambridge.

Council members of the U3A mark its 40th anniversary at the Cambridge Union. Picture: Mark Bullimore
Council members of the U3A mark its 40th anniversary at the Cambridge Union. Picture: Mark Bullimore

The volunteer-run organisation enables active retired people across the UK to take part in a host of activities. It was on March 22, 1982, that 80 people got together at St John’s College, Cambridge, to attend the first U3A classes.

It was the brainchild of two Cambridge academics, Dr Nicholas Coni and Dr Peter Laslett, but they could not have guessed where it would lead. There are now more than 1,000 locally-run U3As with more than 40,000 members affiliated to the Third Age Trust.

However, the Cambridge group – despite being the first – is not one of them, having become a charity in its own right, U3AC – the University of the Third Age in Cambridge – in 1989.

As part of the 40th anniversary celebrations, U3AC’s 2,400 members, from Cambridgeshire and beyond, have much to look forward to. Its headquarters are now in refurbished and expanded premises in Bridge Street and many of its wide range of lectures and courses, from Greek to gardening, are being delivered face-to-face, online or as ‘hybrid’ experiences with some participants at home and some in the classroom.

On Tuesday (March 22), 40 years to the day since that first gathering, the inaugural event marking the anniversary year took place in the Cambridge Union, with the Tickler Company sponsoring the hiring of the venue. Members were able to meet one another in person for perhaps the first time for two years, to attend the AGM and to hear two speakers in the debating chamber.

One of these, John Keyworth – the former curator of the Bank of England Museum – gave a talk on ‘Cartoons and caricatures of the Bank of England’, while Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute and former president of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate for physiology or medicine, provided the Norah Boyce science lecture on ‘What is Life?’.

Council members of the U3A mark its 40th anniversary at the Cambridge Union. Picture: Mark Bullimore
Council members of the U3A mark its 40th anniversary at the Cambridge Union. Picture: Mark Bullimore

U3AC’s current chair, Tim Ewbank – a member for about seven years – said: “In addition, we’re holding some other events; things like tea parties in some of the college gardens. There’s been talk of wine tasting, bring your own picnics – a number of events for our members.”

Tim notes that U3AC’s headquarters were refurbished around this time last year. “The work was completed in August,” he noted, “so we both expanded our space and completely refurbished it. We run all of our classes there but in addition we have a lot of more physical activities.

“There are a lot of walking groups, people playing table tennis, badminton, swimming – pretty much any physical activity you can think of, rather strangely including rock climbing! And we also hire some external premises for larger meetings, so we can accommodate up to about 30 or 40 people at a maximum in any one of our meeting rooms.”

Council members of the U3A mark its 40th anniversary at the Cambridge Union. Picture: Mark Bullimore
Council members of the U3A mark its 40th anniversary at the Cambridge Union. Picture: Mark Bullimore

Tim explained that the concept of U3A was actually brought to the UK from Toulouse in France. “The initial meetings were in Cambridge,” he says, “and at the same time the branch was established in Cambridge, the idea of the national organisation was created and about eight or nine years later the Cambridge branch, which was by far and away the largest and best-established, decided it no longer wanted to be part of the national body – largely for reasons of finance.

“The local offices were individually paying a capitation fee based on the number of members, and Cambridge, by virtue of being the biggest, was contributing most but not really getting any benefit back, so we parted company in 1989.”

That said, U3AC still maintains ties with the national body. “We’re our own independent registered charity,” explained Tim, “and quite a large one; we’ve got nearly 2,500 members, but we are affiliated and we can use the U3A logo.”

Tim said that, historically, “the organisation has grown relatively slowly – two or three per cent per year” and noted that they are now trying to promote it more actively in an effort to entice more members and broaden its appeal.

“The perception is quite academic and the idea of ‘university’ in the title, people think, ‘Oh gosh, that’s a high academic standard and maybe there are exams’ but actually, in terms of participation, the largest numbers of participation are in the physical activities, particularly walking groups.”

Tim adds: “In the middle there’s sort of another category which you could describe as ‘leisure’, so things like photography, doing art, rather than academic art appreciation, and there are some sewing groups and people playing bridge.

Council members of the U3A mark its 40th anniversary at the Cambridge Union. From left, Nick Coni, co-founder, Susan Honeyford, former chair, John Keyworth, one of the lecturers, and Tim Ewbank, present chair. Picture: Mark Bullimore
Council members of the U3A mark its 40th anniversary at the Cambridge Union. From left, Nick Coni, co-founder, Susan Honeyford, former chair, John Keyworth, one of the lecturers, and Tim Ewbank, present chair. Picture: Mark Bullimore

“We currently offer about 430 courses through those three groups – the classroom-based, leisure and physical activities. Every year people come up with new suggestions.”

For anyone interested in joining, U3AC will be holding an open day on July 7. For more information, visit u3ac.org.uk/.

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