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.”