Report from a Survey of U3A members

by Dr Lydia Hebestreit

AUSTRALIAN members believe U3A makes a significant and positive difference to their lives. That said, if you want U3A to grow, committees must promote it vigorously because many active retirees know nothing about the movement. And, if you want more men to join, you could consider appointing more males to roles where they are U3A‘s public face, such as publicity officers or secretaries. These are just some of the conclusions U3A leaders can draw from a report published in the Australian Journal of Adult Learning late last year. The report is an edited version of a thesis by Dr Lydia Hebestreit AO, for a degree of Doctor of Education in comparative education in December 2006. Dr Hebestreit, former Head of the School of Nursing at Phillip Institute of Technology/ RMIT, Melbourne, is a former President of Box Hill U3A. She has been a U3A member for 17 years. For her survey she distributed an 18-question questionnaire to 987 members of two wellestablished U3As in Victoria (Box Hill and Frankston), of which 627 were returned. A total of 68 Presidents of Victorian U3As were surveyed separately.

Respondents were 23% male, 77% female, a similar result to the average gender breakdown of U3A members nationally. While the survey was limited to Victoria and organised some three years ago, its findings are still of great interest. Dr Hebestreit found that 96% of members surveyed felt U3A had benefited them in some way. She noted that members saw many advantages in being a U3A member – membership was affordable for retirees, people were supportive and friendly, students were in the same age group and U3A gave structure to their lives. Said one member: ?Monday morning class gets me going for the week.? Another said: ?An incentive not to stay in my unit and feed the birds.?

Dr Hebestreit commented: ?Interestingly, women respondents mentioned the U3A gave them the opportunity to compensate for educational opportunities missed during their youth or while raising children,? ?Unlike men, women also mentioned a sense of power, a sense of achievement and confidence, as a benefit of U3A.? Students said they didn‘t have any particular preference for how their learning was organised. ?Small informal groups? scored 37% but ?It does not matter? was almost as popular with a 35% vote. Traditional classroom settings were preferred by 28% of U3A students. Most respondents (70%) joined ?to gain knowledge.? Only 17% indicated that they had joined ?for personal satisfaction? and 9% to ?mix with stimulating people.? Significantly, the largest group of respondents had not joined earlier (32%) because they had been unaware of U3A. ?This high rate suggests that the community is not well informed about U3A‘s existence and its activities even though 78.2% of participating U3As indicated that they advertise in order to attract members,? Dr Hebestreit wrote. Males and females also differed in their view of why they joined U3A; while both groups became U3A members mainly for gaining knowledge, women had higher scores than men for “personal satisfaction”, “making friends’.,, and “escape routines”. The same aspects were mentioned in the responses to the open-ended questions, where socialising and meeting people from other nationalities appeared to be important for women but less so for men.

The data indicating life enhancement in the categories of ” social inclusion ” , “independence”, and “health” all showed significant differences between men and women. Commented Dr Hebestreit: ?There were statistically significant differences shown in “reasons for not joining U3A at an earlier date”, with men scoring 14.3% in the category “negative experiences in previous educational circumstances”, while women had scores of only 6.9%. ?This could also be seen as a psychosocial barrier. This has been well described by (Professor Ian) Stuart Hamilton who stated, “We are what we are because of what we were” – negative experiences in childhood still influence participation in education in later life. Some 13% of people had been reluctant to join U3A earlier as they felt they were too old to learn. Others had hung back because they had negative perceptions about the learning environment (9.3%) or prior negative educational experiences (8.6%). Another factor which might be inhibiting membership growth is the fact that in U3As surveyed more than 70% of the secretaries and publicity officers were women. Commented Dr Hebestreit: ?More of a gender mix might help in attracting membership of both genders.? Overall, Dr Hebestreit‘s survey shows that U3A committees appear to be doing an excellent job in providing for their members‘ psychological needs.

So how can U3As improve?

Respondents were asked to where U3A could be improved. The category with the highest responses was improvement in ?types of courses offered? (39%) followed by ?classroom availability? (30%), ?quality of tutors? (16%) and ?scheduling of courses? (14%). Women and men broadly agreed on these choices. Dr Hebestreit suggested U3A marketing could be improved, asking ?Are (U3A) advertisements not effectively designed or are they not in the right places for their target audiences to see them? ?Advertising should depict the variety of courses U3A provides, not only academic, but arts and craft categories and some ?male-specific‘ courses.? She added that focussed ads should help potential members
overcome psychological and other barriers while also explaining the term ?university? in the U3A context. She added: ?The media could play a larger part in informing the public about U3A through announcement and possibly interviews with members and management committee members. ?The fact that U3A participation offers many benefits to members should be highlighted. ?The media frequently uses stereotypical images to portray older people as being a burden to society; this should be challenged. ?It would be refreshing to see programmes depicting older adults who enjoy learning.?

For fuller information, go to the complete text of Dr Hebestreit‘s thesis at: theses/available/etd-06042007 -115106/unrestricted/ thesis.pdf Alternatively type ?Dr Lydia Hebestreit? into Google.