EVERETT, Martyn. Practical Anarchism: University of the Third Age (U3A)

A massive, unsung, but very anarchistic educational network spanning the UK.

EducationUniversitiesOld ageEVERETT, Martyn

Asked to give examples of how anarchist ideas work in practice most

anarchists would probably suggest the collectivisation of industry during

the Spanish Revolution. If pressed to give more recent examples then some of

the surviving small-scale worker co-operatives set up since the late 1960s,

or free schools such as Summerhill might be suggested.

Yet there is one successful organisation that few people would think about,

and that is the University of the Third Age (U3A) which was established as a

way of providing further education to the over 45s.

Deliberately set up in the early 1980s as an independent community-based

’Mutual Aid University’, and now has a network of 574 local groups covering

most of the major towns and cities in the UK, and members in many small

rural communities.

Workshop in Innovation and Team Skills

Although the numbers of elderly people studying in state-controlled further

education has spiralled downwards, total membership of the U3A currently

stands at over 153,00 (February 2006), and increases yearly.

The U3A adopted a healthy anti-authoritarian approach right from the outset,

so that the formal role of the tutor was challenged and usually abandoned


As Eric Midwinter wrote in an early account of the U3A: "Those who teach

will be encouraged also to learn and those who learn shall also teach, or in

other ways assist in the functioning of the institution - e.g. through

counselling other members, offering tuition and help to the housebound,

bedridden and hospitalised, by assisting in research projects, by helping to

provide intellectual stimulus for the mass of the elderly in Britain."

The deliberate decision to abandon formal tutoring whenever possible was a

social rather than an economic decision, based on the "assemblage of

experience and skills which is the automatic gift of the third age".

By dint of living, working and travelling, enjoying hobbies and holidays,

fighting wars, raising children "a veritable treasury of knowledge is

spontaneously available and it is the task of the U3A to mobilise and

channel the resource which otherwise would ... be pitifully wasted."

This is how one member of Ealing U3A describes their organisation: "Interest

Groups are the heart of the U3A movement. Groups meet mainly in each other’s

homes. Someone with particular expertise and knowledge takes on the role of

teacher, leading each session. Alternatively, a member acts as secretary and

helper with group members taking it in turn to lead a meeting. Groups

generally meet fortnightly or monthly and everyone pays 20 pence a meeting

to cover tea and coffee.

"The movement is a self-help organisation. Most of the teaching and tuition

comes from the ranks of its own members. It is a unique educational ’

self-help co-operative. While each U3A is an autonomous unit responsible for

organising its programme, the Third Age Trust - of which all local U3As are

members - provides local U3As with administrative and educational resources

and support to help in running their groups. It organises ’subject networks’

of individuals who are willing to assist others in their particular field of

study, e.g. languages, history, geology, etc.

"As leadership comes from the members themselves, a U3A member may be a

student in one group one day and the leader or tutor the next. It is not

always necessary to have an expert as a leader. In some subjects, members

learn from each other and the role of the leader is to encourage everyone to

take part.

"Interest groups are often quite small with meetings or classes taking place

in members’ homes. Not only does this save on accommodation costs, it makes

for friendly contact among members."

In Norwich the U3A has over 700 members and more than 40 active groups

studying computing, science, environmental sciences, seven different

languages, arts, crafts, literature, poetry, theatre, and nearly 20 leisure

subjects, including music appreciation, bowls, philosophy and vegetarian


While state-sponsored adult education now only runs courses that result in

certificated qualifications, the U3A does not mark or grade educational

activity, and the rigid boundaries between education and leisure have been


In the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Peter Kropotkin defined anarchism as a

society without government, explaining that social harmony in anarchist

society would not be achieved by "by obedience to any authority, but by free

agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and

professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption,

as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and

aspirations of a civilised being."

He went on to describe how this might be realised: "In a society developed

on these lines, the voluntary associations which already now begin to cover

all the fields of human activity would take a still greater extension so as

to substitute themselves for the State in all its functions. They would

represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups

and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and

international - temporary or more or less permanent - for all possible

purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary

arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory, and so

on; and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever increasing

number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs." .(Peter

Kropotkin, `Anarchism’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1905.)

The U3A provides a living example of how people can organise effectively to

bypass and replace the state, demonstrating a method that can be adapted to

other forms of social activity. Of course there are limits to what has been

achieved, and no doubt in some groups informal hierarchy may still exist.

But if members’ personal experience of non-hierarchical organisation can be

extended into other activities such as credit unions, housing co-ops,

communal allotments, then the social basis for informal hierarchy will


The experience of the U3A demonstrates that in their daily lives people

organise in ways which are both autonomous and anti-authoritarian because

they provide effective solutions to social problems, even if as individuals

they do not advocate anarchism as a political philosophy. Our role as

anarchists is to argue that the central principles of anarchism - autonomy,

mutual aid, self-help and direct action - are important as forms of social

organisation that provide a practical social basis for the reconstruction of


The members of the U3A have quietly established one of the largest movements

for libertarian education in Europe, and in doing so have demonstrated that

the state is redundant.