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For the pleasure of learning

As they retire, baby boomers are heading back to school to stay active both intellectually and socially

By YVES LUSIGNAN + LEO CHARBONNEAU | AUG 04 2009
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More than 8,000 seniors took a course, workshop or seminar at one of Sherbrooke’s satellite programs in 2008.

Historian Gratien Allaire of Laurentian University was discussing computers one day with his younger brother while the two were sitting at the bedside of their ailing father, who they assumed was sleeping soundly. So weren’t they surprised when their father suddenly sighed, “It’s a shame I’m in my last days. I would have liked to have had the chance to learn as well!” That moment was a real revelation for Dr. Allaire, one of the supporters of the University of the Third Age, or U3A as it is more commonly known, in Sudbury.

U3A is not a degree-granting retirement club, but rather a worldwide educational movement aimed at seniors aged 50 and up. It’s called a “university,” but students don’t need any previous credits and there is no homework or exams. The only criterion is age.

The idea is to learn for the simple pleasure of learning, with the goal to exercise the brain and to stay active. The first U3A was launched in Toulouse, France, in 1973. The movement spread throughout France, then to other European countries, the U.S. and Canada, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Université de Sherbrooke was the first to adopt the U3A model in North America, in 1976. The idea took root, with seniors’ groups asking the university to open additional U3A programs in other regions. The university now has 27 satellite programs in 10 regions in Quebec offering activities ranging from one-day workshops to 10-week courses.

There is obviously a real desire for this type of learning, and demand continues to grow as the baby boomers retire. There were 8,262 students who took a course, workshop or seminar at one of Sherbrooke’s 27 locations in 2008.

Université Laval also has a U3A, open since 1983, within its continuing education department. About 4,000 students registered last year. Cost of the courses, which are usually held at the Quebec City campus but also at a few satellite locations, ranges from $105 to $135, compared to $75 at Sherbrooke.

The program structure is “very academic,” in that it sticks closely to what is offered at a regular university, says coordinator Johanne L’Heureux. “The goal is to offer a program that reflects the mission of Université Laval and which is quite different from the leisure activities offered by municipalities,” she says.

Professors who teach U3A courses don’t always come from the university with which the U3A is affiliated. They may be retired faculty members or community college professors. At Sherbrooke, some of the professors are doctoral students.

Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières recently joined the movement, with a semi-autonomous U3A group offering courses on campus starting this fall. There is also a handful of French-speaking U3As in New Brunswick and Ontario.

In English-speaking Canada, there are about 50 lifelong learning programs aimed specifically at seniors, according to a survey by Julian Benedict, coordinator of the seniors program at Simon Fraser University. The types of programming range from recreational programs focused on applied skills to knowledge-based courses similar to those offered in undergraduate programs.

Started in 1974, SFU’s seniors program is one of the oldest in Canada. And, as the senior’s population grows, so too does enrolment. In 1999, there were fewer than 200 students registered in each of the spring and fall terms; in the 2009 spring term, it was over 800.

Mr. Benedict surveyed program participants and found that they enjoy learning with other seniors. “We have to resist integrating seniors into non-senior programming. Clearly they do enjoy a peer-only environment.”

But there are challenges. “I found a pattern across Canada of a lot of seniors programs under financial pressure because of general cost-cutting,” says Mr. Benedict. Research shows that such programs provide a health benefit to seniors by keeping them more active and socially engaged, yet “we still have to always make the case to institutions and governments” as to their worth, he says.

“Universities have to look to the future and start investing meaningfully in lifelong learning and support not only new programs but also existing ones, and provide the additional administrative support we need to address the needs of this demographic.”

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  1. A. (Tony) Rhodes-Marriott / August 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Today I found out about U3A, from my sister in UK, and i was wondering if there sre any U3A programs available in Manitoba? If so where are they advertised?

  2. sally patrick / May 3, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    are there u3a groups in ontario?

  3. Dianne Harris / July 10, 2013 at 7:14 am

    Is u3a available in Burlington or Hamilton,Ontario?

  4. Bob Shepherd / September 28, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Since loosing my wife of 52+ years in June, I find myself basically sitting at home doing nothing but reading and have very little face to face contact with anyone. An email from an Australian cousin encouraged me to get involved with a Table for Eight club and a U3A group to meet new friends and to stretch my mind. In high school, my favourite subjects were history and geography and I would love to once again study them. I live near Guelph University but I can find nothing on the internet for either organization in Guelph or Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe. Can you offer any suggestions?

  5. Michelle Fach, Director, Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph / October 1, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    The University of Guelph offers a variety of courses — both face-to-face and online — in the area of history and geography, as well as many other disciplines. Information on available course offerings can be found at http://www.uoguelph.ca/registrar/calendars/undergraduate/current/c12/index.shtml

    For online course offering information, please visit http://www.opened.uoguelph.ca

    Please note that senior citizens, aged 65 years and over as of the first day of the month in which registration for a semester occurs, who are admitted for registration, will be exempt from the payment of domestic tuition, student organization and other fees, with the exception of material costs required for Fine Art and Distance Education courses. For further assistance, please contact Open Learning and Educational Support at 519-767-5000 or via email at info@opened.uoguelph.ca and our learner Services Team would be happy to assist.

    You may also like to know about a program in Guelph called Third Age Learning. The link to their website is http://www.thirdagelearningguelph.ca/

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