History of U3A in Auckland


      U3A in Auckland

We, the U3A Network thank and appreciate the late David Cole (25.10.1925-8.9.2008) an Auckland surgeon, who wrote and presented the History of U3A in Auckland. He and his wife Margot were founder members of the Remuera U3A.

Following prepared by David Cole, with updating in 2011 by Margaret Noakes and Joan Barton, Papatoetoe U3A

“The university shall consist of a body of persons who undertake to learn and help others to learn. Those who teach shall also learn and those who learn shall also teach.”  Peter Laslett who founded U3A in UK in 1981.

The antecedents of U3A in Auckland can be traced back over a century. In the Manukau Gazette of the 4th of October 1890, members of the Onehunga Wesleyan Mutual Improvement Society outlined their plans for “study and mental improvement”, including, rather quaintly, a “competitive spelling bee”.  This clone of a facet of British Methodism is a long forgotten reminder of the Protestant, North Country and Scottish reverence for education as a lifelong commitment. Along with the pioneering spirit of our forbears this worthy trait made the long journey across the world to the antipodes.

Exercising one’s mind and improving knowledge in an organised fashion, has a lengthy history in this country. Indeed the still active WEA [Workers Education Association], founded first in 1914 in Auckland, had as its initial aims “to encourage and arrange adult community education in order to promote a just and equable society.”  The WEA was principally designed to help those in our society who had limited exposure to secondary education.  It was initially funded through the universities with support from the trade unions and churches, but in 1938 a NZ Council of Adult Education provided the finance sourced from the Government.  These days the separate WEA branches provide adult literacy classes, driver education, parenting classes, first aid and self-esteem support. Some of this activity is providing the secondary education not achieved by those who have been deprived in socio-economic terms.  Many of the older enterprises have been absorbed by other organizations … the Leys Institute has become a part of the Auckland library service.

It was not until after World War 2 that new providers were to enter the field and target another group of people who may have had a university or teachers’ college education some years before.  Such people, often in retirement, sought some intellectual refreshment perhaps in a field outside their own vocation.  Following the lead of British universities, NZ tertiary study institutions offered variously named extra-mural studies programmes, some called ‘Adult’ or ‘Continuing Education’.  These continue to be managed by the University Extension departments and usually utilise university staff as formal didactic teachers. There are set courses for which a significant charge is made.  In Auckland the Continuing Education department charged $117 for 2 sessions on Greek Archaeology.

In U3A there are no paid formal teachers nor any topic prescriptions or exams, and certification is not offered. Diplomatosis is not appropriate.

The French Connection   where it all started

French Universities in the 1960s had no such tradition of separate adult education and, to correct this, a legislative change enabled the University of Toulouse in 1972 and others soon after found what they called L’ Université du Troisième Age’  [UTA].  In their sequence of ‘ages’, the 3rd Age became a European term for retirement. The 1st and 2nd Ages are self evident and the 4th best not mentioned. The French system uses university lecturers and buildings, only differing from our own ‘continuing education’ departments in being aimed at the retired community who had completed their life’s vocation ie the 2nd Age, and still retained active and enquiring minds.  This brainchild of Pierre Vellas spread initially from France to Quebec and later to the UK.  One founder emphasised that the objective was to enhance ‘the period of life when one ceases all professional activity and when men and women have absolute freedom to choose what they will do with their free time.’ Its slogan might be ‘a cure for stagnation’ and it proved to be a fine solution to the ‘one day an expert and next day not wanted’ syndrome that often precipitates retirement blues.

Whatever justification or ancestry you give U3A there is no doubt that by the 1980s this was an idea whose time had come.

It can be noted in passing that, while the French used the word ‘university’ for this organizations, not all antipodean universities and educational authorities are happy with this nomenclature.  Indeed the NZ Education Act 1990 specifically protects the use of the word ’university’ s.292{4}a.  The Epsom U3A first sought clarification in December 1993 and got a somewhat threatening letter from the NZ Qualifications Authority [NZQA] using words like ‘prosecution’ and ‘risk of legal action’.  It transpired that it is a legal offence to use the word without the specific approval of the NZQA.  In January1994 a solicitor with the Hawkes Bay U3A, Dr Ken Rhodes, took up the cudgels with a rather tetchy NZQA, making the point that U3A uses the term in the classical sense, a body of scholars rather than the institutional sense of s. 292.  NZQA bureaucrats were unmoved and stuck to their criteria for the granting of permission to use the full word, and it was clear that U3A could not really approach their eight requirements.  As a result, the consensus has been to use the acronym U3A and avoid ‘university’ in any formal statement or publication.

The British Scene

The first seeds of U3A in the UK were planted by the late Peter Laslett of Trinity College, Cambridge, who had been funded to research the education of the elderly.  His 1979 report ‘An Educational Charter for the Elderly in Britain’ was in part a political document described as a cri de coeur for the pulling down of barriers that prevented older people accessing formal education. Laslett linked up with two fellow dons, an educationalist Eric Midwinter and Lord Young who had attained his peerage by virtue of his role in the development of the Open University.  In an obituary for Lord Young a colleague stated: “The track record of previous utopian socialists was not too dazzling, and perhaps his extra ingredient was constantly to find a spot in the existing social fabric where he could insert his innovative communication notion and enable it to adhere in reasonable comfort”.  It was the insertion of U3A that came at such an opportune time.

By July 1981 a number of people, who were aware of the French movement, met in Cambridge.  Approaches were made to that venerable University suggesting some sponsorship of a form of UTA i.e. U3A, but their seriously conservative colleagues in university administration were not interested, ‘constipated by history’ some might say.    It soon became obvious that third-agers were perfectly capable of organising their own activities and providing the skills and expertise needed.  So a new-look U3A, rather different from the UTA, was devised and became based in Cambridge but was soon spread through Britain in 1982-3. The founders had in effect rejected the French concept of pre-packaged courses requiring more or less passive digestion, and sought an intellectual democracy with no distinction between teacher and taught. It was not so different from the medieval University of Bologna where the dramatis personae were not students and staff but seekers and sharers of the body of current knowledge.  This Cambridge model has found approval in many Commonwealth countries and in Sweden and Italy, whereas the Paris model functions in Quebec, Finland and the rest of continental Europe.

By the turn of the 20th century there were over 506 U3As in the UK with 122,000 members, and there is now a 3rd Age Charitable Trust, an international association of U3As [AIUTA], a British newspaper, and a number of web sites. It was intriguing to find that in China there has been since 1994, a CAUA, with 19,300 U3As and 1.8m students. It had become affiliated to the French based AIUTA whose International Conference China hosted in 2004.   In Belgium it is less felicitously called the UDA … Université des Aines ie old people!  Perhaps it is in the translation but the equivalent Czech movement concentrates on our failing grey matter and emerges as the Society for Memory Training and Brain Jogging !

Peter Laslett, a Trinity College political philosopher and the most active of the founding gurus, summed up the basic premise: “Those who teach also learn, and those who learn also teach”.   To this end in 1981 and later in revision in 1984, he prepared 8 objectives and 19 principles. Fundamental to the founders’ concept was that there be no scholastic entry requirement and while no exams or certificates would be involved, the studies should if possible be in the traditional academic fashion with a generous interpretation of the choice of subject offered.  This issue of the extent of educational, creative and social / leisure activities offered, and where the dividing line between learning experiences and craft/hobbies lies, is discussed further below. Emphasis was determinedly placed on the dictum that the learning process would be best enjoyed by utilising the preparation and delivery skills of its members; formal teachers would not normally be involved except for those, for example, studying a foreign language, and they too would preferably be members.   It did not take long to recognise that there was a huge reservoir of retired people with knowledge, skills and experience who set the movement going.  To a large extent it appealed to those who had a tertiary education, but now wanted to study topics outside their 1st Age training or their 2nd Age life’s work.  One major benefit was that it brought to members a new set of colleagues within the study groups, who soon became friends.  As a bonus there was a ‘feel good’ factor or as one Australian commentator commented, U3A offers ‘health benefits associated with cognitively stimulating activities.’ The cogs don’t get so rusty.

This DIY prescription of social interaction and a strong motivation for study was a winning combination and the new star of U3A soon filled a gap in the  legions of frustrated and even bored ‘crumblies’ as a recent journalist cruelly described us.  Thanks to Botox and plastic surgery the former pejorative term ‘wrinklies’ is not so apposite.

An early survey of potential members further showed that they would appreciate keeping the cost involved at a modest level and this has been impressively achieved.  Congruent with our freedom from full-time work commitments, almost all activities are held during weekday daylight.

Right from the start it was left to the self-governing autonomous U3As to decide on their modus operandi, for diversity has been a feature of the development of the movement.  There has also been a conscious wish to avoid the word ‘club’ for the branches of this enterprise.   In Melbourne they use the word campus for their big 4-5 conglomerates and in a 1999 article one author referred to NZ’s 47 ‘campuses’ but this has a geographical connotation. ‘Faculty’ has some supporters but implies a central co-ordination which is actively avoided other than a ‘Network’.  ‘U3A’ is the simple term used most widely in NZ.  Most U3As have formed sets of rules about committees and rotation of chairpersons and so on.   Others let informality reign supreme. Some have become incorporated for tax/charitable reasons.


After the initial success in the UK, enthusiasts at Monash University in Melbourne, notably co-founders Cliff Picton (La Trobe) and Jack McDonnell (Monash), got under way during 1984 and classes started in 1985.  Sydney soon followed, setting up in 7 regions, each with an organising committee. Both learning communities have moved out from the umbrella of conventional universities. Since then there has been a big expansion of numbers, one estimate is of 51,000 members within Australia.

In 1999 Rick Swindell of Griffith University in Queensland reported in some detail on the then 126 U3As in Australia and NZ.  In the big Australian cities the membership is so extensive that individuals in a district cannot meet each month, as in Auckland, but only at an AGM. The whole emphasis is on the home-groups.  For these, the central ‘registry’ sets up a wide programme of separate study courses with experienced conveners or tutors, the topic often centred on the skills or knowledge of a voluntary expert.  In Victoria it was reported that one voluntary tutor repeated his talk eight times, there being such a large membership.   The Sunshine Coast U3A in Queensland has a membership of over 2000 and a huge range of topics for group activities, a choir, many traditional academic topics but also instructional groups, one whole membership is not possible.   To keep in touch with other U3As the Network of this was ‘coastal navigation’.  With these logistics any regular gathering of the principle has led to an Australian Council of U3A Inc. which serves to keep all State groups in touch.

One fine feature of the Australian scene is the setting up of ‘U3A On Line’ www.u3aonline.org.au which caters for those without local organizations. Their website sums it up well: “Members are both teachers and students; all members are of equal status and no titles are used; there are no entry qualifications, no exams, no passing or failing; course fees are avoided and subscriptions are kept modest; home study groups are the essence of U3A and all members should belong to at least one such group.”   This last phrase hints at a problem of ageing members where those dropping out from study groups retain membership and only attend the monthly meetings.  A harsh view is that they should resign and free up places for those prepared to be more involved, particularly if there is a waiting list.

One Auckland U3A makes it a requirement of membership that at least one group is joined.    A St Heliers U3A member goes to 5 groups but 2-3 is more common.

New Zealand

In this country the movement began in 1987 in Auckland when travellers returning from the UK and Australia spread their enthusiasm for the concept of U3A.  By good fortune two Auckland women, Nan Lovell-Smith and the late Rosemary Faull, were able to attend the first International Conference of U3As in Cambridge during 1988 and, on their return, they then linked up with St Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Remuera.  Independently the St Luke’s Parish Council, chaired by Barbara Miller, had been alerted to the merits of U3A by Dr John Hinchcliff, Principal of ATI, now Vice-chancellor of AUT.  As an educationalist he felt it was an ideal vehicle for outreach in the community, not unlike the Onehunga Methodists a hundred years before.

At this stage John Stewart, a recently retired radiologist, was asked to see if it could be established. His wife Marjorie caught the bug too and these two spread their infectious enthusiasm to others.    They were able to visit the strong Bath U3A in the UK and obtain start-up material from the London office.  By June 1989   the scene was set for the first U3A general meeting in NZ.  This writer gave the now customary ‘lecture’ on ‘Alternative Medicine and the Medical Profession,’ and the Remuera U3A was formed.  John Stewart was the first chairman, nowadays called president, and with Marjorie as treasurer, the burgeoning organization got under way.  Alison North was a key appointment for she became the first Director of Studies … the person who managed the groups that were formed to study various topics, mostly in members’ homes.  From small beginnings, and often stimulated by John Stewart acting as a midwife, other Auckland U3As were formed: Takapuna and Epsom followed in 1991 and now in 2007 there are 21 U3As in Auckland.  As numbers increased Remuera U3A moved out from the St Lukes nest, recognising the importance of independence.

Since 1993 the Network has a representative from each U3A. Network meets 3-4 times each year. The chair people have been John Stewart, John Skegg, David Grove, Suzanne Tyndel, Pat Dale, Iris Mee, Alex Lanning, Bob Bettison, and Margaret Noakes in 2011. The Auckland Network offers a start-up kit, compiled in 2002 and updated in 2011. A condensed version of Laslett’s U3A principles was included. A separate Auckland Network Trust managed the finances of the Network. The Trust was disbanded and the funds dispersed to each U3A in February 2009.

Elsewhere in NZ various U3As have evolved.  In Christchurch it started within the University Continuing Education department but has since become a number of independent U3As. Otago University closed down its Continuing Education facility to save money and U3A stepped in to run courses located at Knox College. There are active U3As in   Wellington, Whangarei, Whanganui, Bay of Islands, Whangamata, Taupo, Tauranga. New Plymouth, Hamilton, Hawera and Hawke’s Bay with others forming.  With very few exceptions the start-up of new enterprises has been remarkably successful and much of the increase in numbers is due to ‘word of mouth’ from very satisfied existing members.

A big step forward occurred in February 1999 when the Auckland Network Committee masterminded an international U3A Conference to celebrate our first decade “Towards the 21st Century”.  There have been previous regional gatherings to share ideas and activities; Adelaide in 1992, Canberra in 1995, Caloundra, Queensland in 1996, and another conference in Tauranga in 2002 which was a great success with 360 registrations including 95 from the Trans-Tasman ‘lucky country.’ In late 2007 Christchurch were the hosts for another conference.    In 2001 Takapuna ran a very good open day which centred on a poster display from most of the U3As in the district. The posters were of a very high standard and emphasised the different approaches existing under the U3A banner.

By contrast Wellington’s U3A had an entirely different genesis and the stimulus came from the ‘Age Concern’ organisers who brought over Australian Cliff Picton one of the Melbourne U3A pioneers. He gave some encouraging talks and briefed an enthusiast Jim Ross, recently retired from the Education Department.  It is Jim who has energised the U3Aers in Wellington, but he has led them down a slightly different pathway.   After a public meeting in September 1990 six separate U3As emerged and now there is a substantial membership spread over 10 U3As. Their core structure is the daytime home study-groups but some actually developed into a ‘course’ with a more traditional structure.  The Wellington U3A, with more than 450 members, established a variant on the visiting speaker and monthly meeting concept.  Instead of these meetings there are weekly ‘Tuesday’ and ‘Friday’ lectures given in a central venue.  Members attending these lectures pay a small fee to cover the cost of the venue, hire of equipment and speaker’s expenses. There is an open invitation to any U3A member to attend.   Some U3As like Tawa and Kapiti have memberships of 500-600 and are not able to meet as a whole, but arrange the various courses / home groups from the central secretariat, as in Australia.

  An Auckland survey in 2007

Following a postal survey in 2002 and one repeated in 2007, when data was obtained    from the 21 U3As in the greater Auckland region with approximately   3215 members.  In order of establishment [membership in brackets], they are:-       Remuera [192] 1989; Takapuna [324] 1991; Epsom [148] 1991; St Heliers [158] 1992; Howick [145] 1993; Ponsonby [78] 1994; North-west [151] 1994; Hibiscus Coast [194] 1995; Manurewa  [34] 1995; Warkworth [130] 1996; Papatoetoe [48] 1996; Pakuranga [92] 1996; Devonport [145] 1997; Birkenhead [92] 1997; Franklin  [87] 1997;  Parnell [95] 1998; Brown’s Bay [200] 2000; Meadowbank [260 + 53 on WL];  Mt Albert [102] 2001;  Tamaki [100] 2002 ; Papakura [40] 2002.

Other data gathered.

Remuera U3A as garnered from its ’06 membership list, has 90 women and 70 men. When the members’ former vocation was noted, teachers at 31 were the biggest group, followed by doctors 19 and nurses 11. Only 6 lawyers and 5 engineers were recorded while the rest formed a wide spectrum of activity from a judge to a test-pilot.

It would be neglectful to ignore the reality that U3A is not for everyone who joins up. In South Australia they found a true growth of 12% but enrolment had indicated a 30% increase. They even contacted 150 ex-members who had dropped out and found that life events, overcommitted family roles and feelings of inadequacy for participation were all factors in early withdrawals.  Over the last 4 years at Remuera [160] for instance 39 ceased membership; there being 10 deaths and 29 resignations, almost all for health reasons.  Only 4 stated other reasons.  All have been readily replaced from the waiting list

There is of course a natural attrition as members enter the 4th Age.  U3As share with Probus and other ‘senior’ organizations the need to attract members from the lower echelons of the 3rd Age to restock the resource. There is no data available on the age distribution but to maintain the leadership and study skills a pressing need is new and younger blood. Experience of other organizations underlines this.  Zonta in NZ, to quote a leading member, ‘grew far too rapidly and now, 30 years after being established in NZ, many branches have closed.’  Even Rotary Clubs are suffering similar attrition.

Given the strong influence of John Stewart’s original group it is not altogether surprising that the formula established back in 1989, and derived from Cambridge, has been adopted by all the Auckland U3As. All have a general meeting of members, mostly each month of the year and these are built around visiting speakers and reports. Much of this aspect is developing new friends.  However a monthly gathering puts a limitation on the size of a U3A as the venue’s seating capacity determines size. Mostly golf club, church or community centres are used.  Manurewa is proud of the fact that in its enthusiasm it started in a renovated cow shed but has now graduated to a church hall!

An increasing number of U3As include in their general meeting programme ‘mini-speakers’ for a ’10-12 minute’ speech, usually chosen from within the membership.  This latter feature utilised in 10 U3As is an idea adopted from the Probus clubs and allows members to see their colleagues ‘in action’.  Unlike Probus the talk is not expected to be a modest retrospective of one’s 2nd Age or personal experiences, but rather a chance to expand briefly on something that has come up in one’s group, or a topic totally ‘out of the blue’.   It is most successful.   North-West U3A have introduced a quite formal discussion of the visiting speaker’s offering as a successful alternative to mini-speakers or convenors reports.

These monthly meetings with a visiting speaker are seen as a means of establishing some wider collegiality beyond one’s study group, as well as sharing reports on the study groups’ activities.   We see this as an advantage over the big groups where the social contact is only with members of individual study groups and perhaps for a limited time of the course. It may well be as John Stewart believes, that a membership of about 150 is ideal for maintaining the benefits of social cohesion.  Those U3As with large membership and no monthly meetings have the capacity to generate more study group expertise but they miss out on collegiality.

All the Auckland’s 21 U3As and there are 376 groups available have ‘home’ study groups although some bigger groups meet in church or community rooms which have to be hired at the group’s expense. Tutors are virtually absent and some groups rely on talks by group members who research and present their part of an ongoing topic; for example one group recently studied the history of the Middle East.  An elected convener collects volunteers and allocates subjects often right through to December. All members are expected to present at least one talk.  The number of groups varies from 7 in Birkenhead, to 22-25 in Remuera, Epsom, Howick and a massive 40 plus in our biggest U3A, at Meadowbank.   All groups meet at least once each month, but fortnightly is not infrequent and some dedicated groups meet each week.  Groups are between 5 and 15 but ancient history attracts 34 in Takapuna. St Heliers and Remuera have had shared groups in geology, comparative religion and in architecture.

With the exception of some language groups where a member is an expert and is in effect a tutor, groups are led by convenors who often change each year.  It is interesting to compare this with Tawa in Wellington where there are 43 groups of which 20 have formal tutors.  One Remuera group studying NZ history includes a former University historian [who was also a deputy-prime minister], but the group, while valuing his role as keeping it ‘on the rails’, and admiring his erudition, prepares and presents material without significant tutorial direction. Not surprisingly some group members feel initially rather threatened by the task of preparing and presenting a component of the group’s topic. The advent of Google has been a godsend, but just copying the entry and then reading it to the group is less than ideal. One of the exciting features, as a group’s work matures, is to see those with perhaps little teaching and researching experience, gain confidence and hold their own with former pedagogues.

Some U3As have followed the lead of Rotary and publish a confidential membership address list.  This may have a few lines about the member.  While some modestly hide under a bushel most see the value of knowing a little of the background and current interest of members helps the committee member who arranges monthly speakers. This will identify appropriate members to introduce speakers and thank them.

Within the U3As there is usually a simple committee structure with various roles for members.  In keeping with the need for a wide involvement of members one pattern is for the annual presidents to be ‘gender-alternating’ and the vice-president is automatically president next year. Another idea acquired from service clubs is to designate a committee member often the retiring president as an ‘almoner’ to act as a focus for supporting members who may be unwell or, for example, have a stressful period after a bereavement.

Financially all U3As have been loyal to the premise that costs for retired people should be kept low. The annual subscription varies from $15 /person to $30 and many have a dual membership of say $35-$40 for partners.  Where there is a hire charge for a group meeting this is paid for at $2 – $5 by the group members.   By contrast Ohariu membership fee is $12 but they pay $3/lecture in the Tuesday/Friday series [see above].    As a gesture to the monthly guest-speaker many Auckland U3As offer a gift voucher, which may be as much as $100, although a majority do not give more than some petrol coupons. When Ohariu was started in 1990 and it began to use speakers other than members, it was made clear there would be no payment for any lecturer beyond re-imbursement of travelling expenses.  Where a series of lectures were given by the same person, they would get a small gift. This policy has continued and has caused no difficulty.

Some treasurers will give each study group within the U3A a sum say $65 for group expenses such as photocopying or purchase of texts on a subject of study.  For legal protection a few U3As have become an Incorporated Society.  Capital expenditure is low but the need for good audio amplification [for the ageing ears] has involved some expense.   For speakers who bring visuals some U3As have purchased projectors and some have booted up with a full ‘Power-Point’ system.

A major expense other than venue is the monthly newsletter which all U3As arrange.  One feature is to ask a member to prepare a summary of the guest speaker’s talk and put this in the following newsletter. These newsletters are an essential bonding component; most feature an individual logo and some are quite elaborate. A number of U3A members are using.  Good use of suburban newspapers has been made to recruit members.  Ponsonby have a monthly column in the local newspaper.

One of the important features in the region has been the assistance that earlier established U3As have given to the advent of new U3As.   One South Auckland chairperson has helped to set up new U3As as far afield as Marlborough and Bay of Islands.  On the North Shore Takapuna has assisted 3-4 new U3As to be set up. Some people from a large and adjacent U3A may move to form the nucleus of the new ones, although often members are reluctant to leave their comfort zone. The U3A Network support and aid the setting up of new U3As.   Increasing popularity may lead to restrictions in membership because of venue size. As a result there may be a waiting list to join an established U3A.  Two such waiting lists existed when the survey was made. Coupled with this is the study-group size for popular topics; for example in Meadowbank the Current Affairs group reached a membership of 70 and had to undergo binary fission into two similar groups, but this can be difficult.

Scope or Range of Study Topics

During the 1999 Conference in Auckland there was common agreement that the study group was the component that set U3A apart from other 3rd age activities.  But one of the issues that surfaced at a workshop was the extent to which the U3As, through the establishment of their groups, choose study topics that fall well outside the conventional academic syllabus of the humanities, sciences and professional schools.  There is obviously a temptation in a large U3A to add some recreational activities, even ‘infotainment’ and widen the concept of the more academic approach that was a feature of early efforts.  In Australia, where the organization is usually based on a central registry setting up independent courses often time limited. It is not unusual to have a course say in ‘creative gardening’ or ‘building a yacht’ and ‘bridge playing’ groups are common.

In NZ too some U3As have widened their scope and are satisfying a wish for members to have hobbies and leisure pursuits included in the often extensive menu.  For example ‘gallivanting’, bridge, mah-jong, petanque, gourmet, embroidery and computers appear on Auckland lists.  In Wellington the Tawa U3A offers 43 groups and these include the standard topics of history, poetry, art appreciation and writing for grand-children, but others more leisure oriented, include first-aid, cooking, interior design, quilting, social games, jazz, gardening, tai chi, and ‘fun with herbs’.  Mana Wellington U3A has a strong entrepreneurial style to its group recruitment:  “Lost great-grandma? We ‘can help you to find her’ a genealogy group no less.   Wellington’s oldest U3A, talks in its newsletter of the ‘Academic Programme’ and indeed, of their 23 groups, only one, on chess / mah jong, falls outside the term [used narrowly] of academic   In Melbourne the central city campus has over 30 ‘ongoing courses’, 12 of them for language learning, as well as ‘shorter courses’ ranging from 1-15 weeks.  Both versions have formal tutors.


How wide should U3A spread its wings?

Right from the beginning, independence, autonomy and flexibility have been nurtured. Cliff Picton describes this as one of our great strengths as it ‘Implicitly identifies the great diversity of needs and talents of potential U3A participants.’  This catholicity of approach causes some traditionalist members of the movement to ask the question ‘Are we trying too hard to be all things to all retired people?’  They would say, and the writer is inclined to this view, that there are bridge clubs in most communities although at $150 /year and $7 /game it is not cheap, there is Senior Net for the computerniks, Forest & Bird do great walks and there are night classes in picture framing;  so why duplicate them.  Moreover throwing steel balls into a sandpit is hardly a scholarly activity nor does it put any demand on the dormant mind, which is what U3A is all about.

There are some groups like cinema or theatre-going, where study of a director or playwright, or analysing some classic drama fits naturally with the pleasure of attending regular performances.  Geology and architecture groups naturally need field trips. Book-reading groups, commonly strongly supported, may well have some ‘academic’ content and Health & Fitness combine a talk with some active exercise mostly walking.

The reader may feel that we are getting on to contentious and rather sensitive ground in highlighting this recreational aspect but the purists have a case.

A less rigid view is that if there is a demand for a particular group to form, albeit even if the topic might appear flippant to some, and assuming there are takers and a facilitator, then within U3A this is acceptable.  If you go back to Peter Laslett’s original 1984 charter you will find that, from his background in helping the older community, he is fairly eclectic in his views.  In principle 14 he states: ‘Insistence on learning as an end to itself shall go along with an emphasis of making things and acquiring and improving skills of all kinds.’ The curriculum should therefore include, if there is a demand and facilities can be found, such subjects as computer programming now obsolete, accountancy, business and management studies, spoken languages and handicrafts in textiles, metal, bookbinding, printing and so on.   It would be interesting to know whether such diversity, reaching into hobbies, is now a feature in the UK.  But free choice is one of the facets which are fundamental to the movement; Laslett again, at principle 9, “The curriculum shall be as wide as resources permit but it is recognised that humane subjects ie humanities are likely to predominate.

All this rather emphasises that even in the last 17 years the scene is changing. People entering, or already in, the 3rd age have new requirements for retirement. Demographic changes, educational background, improvements in health and increased life expectancy, mean that there is no blueprint of what makes the ideal retirement. Our place in the 3rd Age spectrum is discussed below, but we should not underrate the emergence of new friendship groups within U3A.  The value of relationships formed through regular encounters with others seeking new interests, the finding of fascinating personalities behind conventional masks, and the sharing of in-depth ideas, should not be underestimated.  As doors close, others open.  U3A is emerging as an appealing door, but how wide it is will not be decided by a rule book but each U3A will choose its own way of reaching its goal.

Other aspects

Most U3As recognise the dual nature of the movement and do not neglect the shared-activity component.  In those months where there is a 5th meeting day one U3A group has either a lunch or a trip to some worthwhile venue eg the Marine Laboratory at Leigh.  It enhances the collegiality. At a final extravaganza in December most programme organisers throw serious topics aside and have fun.  In Takapuna it is their annual frolic[described as a ‘regular farago with suitable epicurean delights.   Others have a winter solstice Xmas dinner where choirs may entertain and awards be given for zany characteristics of members. At December wind-ups strawberries and cream may make their welcome appearance and a voluntary bard reviews the year in verse.  As the next year opens, new presidents’ addresses are properly devoted to fulsome eulogies of their predecessor and the naturally outstanding committee that managed the last year’s programme.

Although not one of the basic features of U3As, some have undertaken ‘extra-curricular activities’.  Following an address by visiting speaker Mrs Christine Fernyhough, Remuera for example, has financed regular donations to a school in the far North under the ‘Books in Schools’ programme popularised by Alan Duff.  Furthermore after an appeal to members, President John Irwin reported that the same decile-one school was delighted to get 6 donated computers as members upgraded their own machines.  In another suburb U3A members have given assistance to a hospice.  Yet another U3A in Manurewa provided tutors for a local ESOL activity.

Rick Swindell at the 1999 conference suggested U3Aers should make an outreach effort to help those physically and geographically isolated.  ‘U3A On Line’ is such a move.  In the UK visits to retirement homes for presentations of material already worked over in a group study has been a valuable out-reach. For example Kapiti Coast U3A makes a special effort to involve people in the premier retirement village at ‘Parklands’.  In the future teleconferencing may help this outreach. The Ponsonby U3A became publishers in 2001, and sponsored a book ‘One Man’s Dream; the Leys Institute and the family who founded it’.  The Network Trust in Auckland also published a small booklet entitled ‘Collected Short Stories’ which features the winning contributions chosen by an independent University colleague from many submissions from U3A members 56 short stories & 35 poems.  In keeping with our scholarly style there have been a number of literary competitions, one open to writers on both sides of the Tasman.

Laslett’s 13th principle encouraged members ‘to join the widespread accumulation of scattered data required for the advancement of knowledge’ in short research.  He had used older volunteers in his own demographic research and believed similar volunteers could make a big contribution in this sort of activity.  One suspects this was an ideal which he hoped for as a university-style function, but in reality it did not survive.   Richard Swindell in Australia noted some research projects in the demography of older people had been tackled by U3Aers in that country. He added a cautionary note pointing out that not all U3A members had the educational skills for such activity and it would be a great pity if those with less formal education felt excluded.

At an early stage after the Wellington U3As got under way there was a suggestion that a Federation or a similar national body be established, as in the UK.  This was opposed by some of the Auckland originators who felt that once you set up a NZ-wide Association you start to incur expenditure and one of the tenets of the movement emphasised is a low key, low cost operation.  Besides an immutable basis of U3A should be independence of each unit.  As an aside if you like kinky archaic word, the Eastern Orthodox Church uses the word ‘autocephalus’ for its regional self-government.  This NZ wide Federation has not eventuated but it may be revisited at Christchurch and some exchange of views may well help.  In Auckland the Network shares information, provides Start-up Kits and does not serve any executive function. In Wellington the U3As send members to a Regional lunch meeting to exchange ideas and discuss mutual problems.

1993 St Heliers U3A  A city Art Gallery evening.

1999 Auckland Conference

A highlight in the experience of Auckland members was the U3A Anniversary Conference that marked the 10th year in 1999 which coincided with the ‘International Year of the Older Person’.  It was entitled ‘Frontiers of Knowledge for the 21st century’ and utilised to the full the University of Auckland’s Conference Centre. With many of the 280 members 50 from Australia and 10+ from UK stayed in O’Rorke student hostel.  It was a felicitous mixture of social contacts, hard topics and enjoyable entertainment.  The organising committee, based on the Network, were able to attract a wide range of speakers on topics as wide as John Geddes with his ‘Lexpistols’ a jazz group of lawyers, through genetic manipulation, quantum chaos, religious fundamentalism to ‘China and Asia……Leaders or Losers’.  Perhaps one of the best of the many excellent speakers was Professor Dame Anne Salmond who spoke about the changing face of society with special reference to the Maori and Polynesian people of NZ.  Dorothy Tomlinson wrote a theme song performed by a small choir of members.  It was a heart-warming experience and our ‘cogs’ got a good working over.

2001 Takapuna U3A Gathering

In August 2001 U3A Takapuna, with encouragement and financial underwriting from the Network, held a one –day conference, called a U3A Gathering, at Netball North Harbour, for U3A’s throughout the Auckland region.  Donald Cordes, at that time Takapuna’s Network representative, organized the conference, which was planned during the presidency of Patricia Campbell and chaired by John Willmott, the newly-elected President of U3A Takapuna.  A notable feature of the conference was a display of posters from many of the regional U3As, coordinated with his usual enthusiasm and gift for organization by Fraser Campbell.  These posters, highlighting the studies undertaken by their groups, were displayed in the room where the morning tea was served.  Viewing and discussing the posters provided a positive beginning to the day and encouraged people from different U3As to talk with one another.  Another highlight was the award winning Westlake Girls High School Choir, who performed at the catered luncheon.  The keynote speaker was Dr Brian Findsen, at that time a staff member at AUT, who spoke on  “Education and the Older Adult”.  The gathering was financially successful also, with U3A Takapuna donating part of the proceeds to the Network.

Charlene and Donald Cordes

2004 Pakuranga U3A Conference

A Conference was held on Thursday 29 July. “The Power of Advertising” was the chosen topic and eventually advertised as “I shop; therefore I am – Living in a consumer society”.

The conference was held at the St. Columba Presbyterian Church, Botany Downs, Pakuranga.  The two speakers were Mr. Stuart Sinclair, AUT Faculty of Business, speaking on the positive aspects of advertising and Dr. Steve Matthewman, University of Auckland Department of Human Sociology speaking to the adverse and its influence on the community at large.  Time was allowed for questions.

After lunch people were split into four discussion groups and their findings were later reported back to the conference.

Brenda Carlson


2006 Papatoetoe U3A Regional Day

Papatoetoe organized a regional day for the Auckland U3As on Wednesday 31May.  The theme was “Are we our own Worst Enemies”.  Talks were given by Mr. Jack Craw and Dr. J. Walsby.  How we are damaging our environment and ecology matters were clearly defined, yet we also had some laughs.

During the catered lunch break Phillip Bendall an agent for Segways showed us the versatility of these machines. Members were able to try this new form of transport.  After lunch each U3A had a person talk about their U3A with the aid of their poster. This provided an enjoyable way to hear about the study topics and strengths of each group.

The financial support from Network made it possible to donate proceeds back to the Network.

The Greenlane Christian Centre was an ideal central venue, with easy parking and excellent lunch facilities.

Margaret Noakes

2009 November 20 Auckland Regional U3A 20th Anniversary hosted by U3A Devonport.

A hundred and four people attended. Some U3As provided photos for a Power point presentation. A member from each group shared stories about their own U3A. The McHugh’s Restaurant at Cheltenham Beach provided a superb setting and luncheon. A bookmark celebrating 20 years of U3A within the Auckland region was given to each person attending.

Valerie and Jim Mason.


NZ Conferences outside the Auckland Region were:

2002 Tauranga U3A Conference

This conference was held from 11th to 15th March and titled “Pacific Paradise in the 21st century?”   Ken Rose and a subcommittee organized it.  The Mayor of Tauranga officially opened the conference at a Civic Reception.

The pattern for Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday was a main plenary session, morning tea and then a choice of two lectures, both associated in some way with the main address.  Lunch was available at local cafes. The afternoon choices were offered to either places of interest or attendance at one of several discussion groups.

2007 Christchurch International Conference

This conference was held from 19 – 21 November.  It had a future oriented focus.  ‘The World Ahead – from Here to Where?”

Day One.  The Environment will include “Climate Change – New Zealand Land of Birds, Sustainable Development and Human Well-being.  The pathway to New Zealand, the Coming of the People.”

Day Two.  Social Issues, will include “Cutting Edge Science”, “Issues of Bioethics”, The pace of Technology”, “Social Harmony and economic Change”, “Globalization”

Day Three.  The Arts, will include ”The Place of the Arts In Society, Literature and Writing, the Artists Eve, Music for the People, Architecture and Art for Public Spaces”.

This conference featured keynote speakers and smaller group sessions.

 NZ U3A members are able to attend conferences elsewhere in the world.



Browns Bay U3A offers a service to all U3A to place their contact details on their website. Each U3A is free to set up their own website. To do this your U3A needs a dedicated and knowledgeable person to take the responsibility for the website.

For information on setting up a website go to Google.

Some websites that we can access are:

Australia http://www3.griffith.edu.au/03/u3a/ Supported by the Australian Federal Government.

Browns Bay www.u3abb.net.nz

Canterbury Council www.u3anetworknz.org  There are other Canterbury websites too. The Canterbury Council and Browns Bay websites offer all NZ U3A the opportunity to place their contacts details with them.

In 2011 the annual costs for setting up and registering the website domain name of www.u3anetwork.nz.org was $200.00 approx. An exchange rate for NZers would be added. Each U3A must CHECK any needed financial involvement when placing their name on an offered website.

Remember to update your U3A contact details each year.

  • To do this contact, the NZ rep David Stove at  email hidden; JavaScript is required

 U3A as a component of the retirement industry

In conclusion, as we enter the 21st Century, it is appropriate to reflect on the place of U3A in this country’s provision of retirement enrichment activities.

Some of these activities might be:

• Service clubs: although Rotary, Lions etc may be for the 2nd Age

• Social clubs and hobby clubs including the ubiquitous Probus Clubs

• Sporting clubs like bowls, golf etc

• Study ‘clubs’ noting that U3As prefer not to use the word ‘club’


Within the wider aspects of the retirement industry to borrow the modern jargon with tongue in cheek, there is a spectrum of enrichment activities for ‘seniors’ which come under the heading of ‘study’:-

• University degree courses with some distant learning

• University Continuing Education courses

• U3A in one of its styles


• State School based evening classes

      • WEA

      College for Seniors, including elder hostels

Overseas countries have other formats; In Germany there is a LILL [Learning in Later Life] and in North America Elder-hostels which combine both education and travel.  In the Asian Pacific region there is a programme called ‘Older People and Adult Learning’ [OPAL].

In addition there are organizations for welfare and lobbying rather than learning :-

Grey Power and Age Concern

 Various health based groups eg ‘Alzheimers Auckland’

Church based organizations and retirement villages


Peter Laslett in his cri de coeur twenty years ago set his sights very high. He would be delighted at the range of activities we have in NZ for third-agers, although not all are under the umbrella of U3A and would not want to be. But the growing success of the U3A movement in this country and the pleasure it brings to so many retired people justifies the view that, in the spectrum of activities for senior citizens, the U3A has an honourable and noteworthy slot. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it requires active participation and suits those whose horizons refuse to close in.

The U3As that belong to the Auckland Network believe they have found the right formula within the original Cambridge concept. As John Stewart remarked at Mt Albert U3A symposium, the idea of U3A was born in France, becoming respectable in Britain, being refined and tried out in Australia and prospering in NZ.   The Auckland prescription of keeping the various district U3As on the smaller side and thus allowing the regular monthly meetings, satisfies the social enrichment component.  Active and diverse study groups provide the intellectual stimulation.  If we are a bit self-satisfied, as one critic remarked, then so be it.  We are old enough, even wise enough, to shrug off that sort of talk.

If this was a life insurance medical report, the writer would have no hesitation in prescribing a fine prognosis for the U3A movement and its members.    We have entered the 21st century looking forward and, apart from our history groups, there is nothing ‘retro’ in our thinking while unsuccessfully seeking a collective noun. Would a Euphoria of U3As do? Our teaching and learning community is awash with satisfied, happy and eager customers.  Hopefully we are also good students.  As Swindell has remarked after long experience lecturing to University students, there is an ego- massaging buzz to find that his U3A audiences almost all stay awake.

Well, most of us some of the time!


This booklet was originally published by the U3A Auckland Network Trust and was designed to be given to new members to acquaint them with both the background to U3A and where it fits in as a retirement activity.


David Cole is indebted to the secretaries of the various U3As who replied to the questionnaire and permission to use their annual statistics.  In Wellington Dorothy Offenberger, Fergus Ferguson and Alan Todd kindly collected material from their U3As to form a contrast to the Auckland network. Jim Ross had done a succinct review of the Wellington start–up and Mrs H Heppner published an in-depth review in NZ Journal of Adult Learning 22.5.1994.

David Cole thanks John Stewart, Alison North, Suzanne Tyndel, Ann Gluckman, Sylvia Arcus, Carol Sanders, Nan Lovell-Smith, Alistair Whitelaw and Margot Cole who have helpfully reviewed the text. They probably don’t agree with all of it but made many constructive suggestions and added further information.   John Richards designed the cover.       


There have been some outstanding Aucklanders whose foresight and energy led to founding and widening the network of U3As.  Sylvia Arcus, the initial President of our second U3A at Takapuna was one and Gary Hanley in South Auckland another. Suzanne Tyndell has been a stalwart of North West U3A   Nevertheless it would be wrong in this survey not to highlight the major influence in the Auckland scene of our Life Member John Stewart and his wife Marjorie.  John has been tireless in proselytising the creed of U3A.  Royal recognition with the award of the MNZM in 2000 was a well deserved reward for his special form of community service. His gentle, even deferential style and fine communication skills, hiding a touch of thoroughness and doggedness, have contributed enormously to the U3A success story in Auckland.

26.08.2011 Updated by Margaret Noakes and Joan Barton, Papatoetoe U3A











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