A guide to The University of the Third Age (U3A)

There are many groups and organisations available to enable and support our learning and life experiences, but not many of these are exclusively for mature people. Find out about the U3A, what activities they organise and how to take part below.

Written by

Sheila Frampton

Continuing lifelong learning into your retirement has been shown to improve your mental wellbeing, improve your health and help you forge new social connections.

Keeping your brain engaged and active, no matter what your age, is about embracing a passion for education and for developing new skills.  It can also give your life focus and purpose and provide more personal fulfilment.

Many organisations offer learning and development courses including many local authorities but the U3A is purely for more mature people.  If you’ve always wanted to learn a particular skill or if you enjoy sharing your knowledge with others, the U3A could be a good option for you.

Two men speak to each other across a fence
A lady painting a canvas
A group of people drinking coffee together

What is the University of the Third Age?

The U3A comprises over 1,000 locally run interest/learning groups that provide a wide range of opportunities to come together and learn for fun or to explore new ideas, skills and activities.

There’s no homework and no exams – this is learning for fun rather than to achieve qualifications. 


How old do you need to be to join the U3A?

There are no age limits but the U3A, as its name suggests, is for people in their ‘third age’ – retired or semi-retired.   The organisation has around 430,000 members, most aged 50 and over. 


What is the history of the U3A and how did it begin?

The U3A first started at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Toulouse, France, in 1973 being the brainchild of Professor Paul Vellas. In France, the branches of the U3A are mostly associated with a local university and this academic model is used in many other countries, particularly in continental Europe.

By the early 1980s, the concept reached the UK where it was radically changed to become more of a self-help organisation by its founders, Peter Laslett, Michael Young and Eric Midwinter.

Each U3A in the UK is formally structured as an independent, self-financing and self-managing charity with links to the Third Age Trust, a national co-ordinating body.

Each individual U3A comprises a number of activity groups which may cover a wide range of different topics – the arts, languages, physical activities, discussion groups and games. 

Most U3As are centred on a particular town or region and the activity groups meet in hired halls or, sometimes, in members’ houses.  There is also some provision for members to participate online.

Two older people practising yoga together

What are the guiding principles of the U3A?

The U3A is non-religious, non-political and has three main principles:


  • Membership of the U3A is open to all in their third age, which is defined not by age but by a period in life in which full time employment has ceased.
  • Members promote the values of life-long learning and the positive attributes of belonging to a U3A.
  • Members should do all they can to ensure that people wanting to join a U3A can do so.
A couple out on a walk together
A man playing guitar


  • Members form interest groups covering as wide a range of topics and activities as they desire, by the members for the members.
  • No qualifications are sought or offered. Learning is for its own sake, with enjoyment being the prime motive, not qualifications or awards.
  • There is no distinction between learners and teachers – they are all U3A members.


  • Each U3A is a mutual aid organisation, operationally independent but a member of the Third Age Trust, which requires adherence to the guiding principles of the U3A movement.
  • No payments are made to members for services rendered to any U3A.
  • Each U3A is self-funded with membership subscriptions and costs kept as low as possible.
  • Outside financial assistance should only be sought if it does not imperil the integrity of the U3A movement.
Two ladies speaking with coffee in hand

What type of activities, interest groups and events are on offer at the U3A?

Interest groups and events vary according to the area in which you live and the local group which you attend. 

Some U3A groups arrange trips to museums, concerts or theatres as well as study days and holidays.  If there’s enough demand in your area for a certain subject, you can start your own study or skill group.  Each group has its own volunteer leader or co-ordinator who has a particular interest or expertise in the subject.  For language classes, most of the group leaders tend to have specialist knowledge, or they may be native speakers of the language they’re teaching.


Typical courses may include the following:

  • Art
  • Bridge
  • Classical studies
  • Conversation
  • Computing
  • Crafts
  • Dance
  • Debate
  • Drama
  • Film/Cinema Studies
  • Gardening
  • Health, Fitness and Leisure (including countryside walks)
  • History
  • Languages
  • Local history/ genealogy
  • Music
  • Philosophy
  • Photography
  • Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Theatre/ Concert Clubs
A lady joining an online class

Can I attend U3A groups, events or courses online?

There are plenty of different types of events online for members including talks, workshops and courses at no extra cost.  These are led by members with a passion or a talent to share or by specialist guest speakers.

Over the years, the U3A has built up relationships with leading organisations so can offer selected national events online – including events with the National Gallery, Royal Institution, Guildhall Art Gallery and the British Library (there may be a small charge for some of these).  There are also workshops, webinars and interactive sessions delivered by members which are free to join – but need to be booked.  These can include Laughter Yoga Workshops, Seated Yoga, Live Cookery Demonstrations, Digital Skills, Writing Poetry for Publication and Performance, Sleep and Dreams and so much more.

For those who are unfamiliar with Zoom, there are a number of How To Guides and Online Tutorials on the U3A website in the ‘Online learning Events’ section.


How much does U3A membership cost?

Each U3A group is different so fees vary but the fees are usually lower than those of adult education courses because each U3A is run by volunteers.  To join any group, you will need to be a member and membership costs vary according to the group but are generally no more than £20 a year.  We have included details of the costs of some of the U3A memberships within this article but it’s best to check with the group.


What impact does learning with the U3A have on members?

According to the majority of studies and research that has been carried out, it is evident that joining the U3A has made a positive and healthy impact on the lives of its members with the majority of people experiencing definite improvements in their health and satisfaction with life.  In terms of general health, well-being and cognitive abilities, studies show that U3A members score more highly than non-members and that attending U3A courses may help stave off mental decline. 

  • U3A courses tend to have an element of physical or mental exercise of some type which has a positive impact on the health of those involved.
  • Socialisation of members at meetings has a good psychological impact on U3A members.
  • Membership means being able to meet people with the same interests.
  • Some U3A branches run outings, short breaks and holidays – and these can be ideal for those who don’t want to holiday alone.
A lady painting in her home
Two men playing chess
A group of people talking at an event

How to find your nearest U3A group

New U3A groups are constantly ‘popping up’ – if you visit the U3a website, there is a section entitled ‘Join Us’ and you’ll be able to search for your local branch.  The following groups are a examples of those within a close proximity to current or forthcoming Beechcroft locations:

Please note: prices and activities included below are examples and may be subject to change. Please see each U3A's website for the latest information.

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