The Early History of The University of the Third Age in Cambridge
In 1973, Vellas founded the first U3A in Toulouse, and eight years later, there were 60 of them throughout France. In the spring of 1981, Peter Laslett and Nick Coni were discussing this development over dinner in Trinity, and wondered whether a similar venture would work in Cambridge. To find out, a public meeting was held in the Guildhall in July, and those present clearly gave the idea a resounding cheer of approval. A steering committee was formed to carry this initiative forward, in conjunction with a national movement led by Lord Young of Dartington and Eric Midwinter, then director of the Centre for Policy on Ageing, which donated some financial support in order to get us off the ground. This committee organised a one week demonstration course at St John's in March 1982, which some 80 third agers attended, 60 from the Cambridge area, and 20 from far afield so that they had to be resident in Hughes Hall. This proved to be very enjoyable, and even the weather was propitious.
It quickly became apparent that the Cambridge U3A would evolve in a very different way to the rather prescriptive French model. Rather than being a form of adult education, in which the educators (university staff not yet in the third age) would feed selected material to their passive elders, this would be an intellectual democracy, in which all would be regarded as pupils and all would decide what disciplines they wanted to study, the membership would organise and finance the studies, the membership would do the teaching. No qualifications would be required and none would be awarded. The objective would be the enrichment of later life, most of the studying would take the form of small interactive seminars, and members would participate in social and sporting activities as well as academic ones.
The Cambridge U3A, launched later in 1982, was the first in Britain, and its organisation on these lines has been adopted by all of the four hundred and more U3As in this country, and by U3As in Australia and New Zealand. The U3AC was granted charitable status in its first year, but it was at first a somewhat sickly infant with no home, scarce funds, and little staff. The one paid member of staff we did have, Jean Lambert, was a natural organiser with a real gift for getting along with the members. The society did have a great deal of energy and goodwill, and however invidious it may be to identify names when there are so many equally deserving ones, it is impossible to avoid mention of the figuratively towering if physically diminutive form of our first Director of Studies, the indefatigable Vernon Futerman, who made a massive personal contribution to our early, tentative beginnings. The lectures took place on the top floor of the old Addenbrooke's Hospital in Trumpington Street, now the Judge Institute of Management Studies, in a lecture theatre which quickly became so inadequate that people had to stand at the back or sit on the floor, all of which lent an exhilaratingly undergraduate air to the proceedings.
All these years, and several changes of office accommodation later, the rest is history, as the membership nudges the 2000 mark. One notable event, which took place in September 1988, deserves particular mention. We organised an international U3A symposium, fittingly in Trinity, and this was extremely well attended by members of U3As from all over the world. Its proceedings were published the following year. The quality of the lectures was matched by that of the dinners and the wines, and it emphasised that the U3A had come of age itself as a world wide movement.
Sadly, Peter Laslett died in 2001.