Separating the U3A baby from the bathwater

by Mel Davies

We cannot avoid change, we cannot foresee all of it, we can only hope to direct and control some of it. Some change is inevitable and indeed necessary if U3A is to survive. So what might be changed and what must be retained? What is the true nature of U3A?
We should, I think, keep two things firmly in mind. U3A is a movement, not an organisation and it is a grass roots movement. To forget or ignore or challenge these basic tenets would be to risk damaging the unique nature of U3A.
The U3A movement is based on a body of thought about late-life learning. The defining ideas for the model of U3A we use are Lazlett’s Principles. Individual thinkers – that is separate, disparate and independent U3As – use these principles as templates when creating and managing their own groups. This is the way U3A has spread world-wide – ad hoc at grass-roots level. This may lead some people to see U3A as frustratingly loose in structure. But can such a unique movement be expected to possess uniformity? I’d argue that U3A’s very flexibility is one of its strengths.

The “British model” of U3A has developed through practice “in the field” and become firmly entrenched in Australia. I would hold that in the process three basic assumptions have come to be held in common. 1. U3A is voluntary. It is not payment for services rendered. Consequently cost of membership can be kept to a minimum. 2. U3A operates on the principles of self help and mutual support. U3A is not merely learning – it is a particular educational model in which people share with and learn from each other in a friendly, noncompetitive, supportive social environment.
3. Each U3A group is independent. It conducts its own affairs, formulates its own constitution and determines its own curriculum according to the needs of its members and using the resources available to it.

U3A is a community and as members of this community we have a collective responsibility to protect its true spirit by ensuring that as we adjust to change and move into the future the U3A baby is not thrown out with the bath water.