THE University of the Third Age (U3A) made clear at its Norwich conference last week that it is ready to take on a new campaigning role in education. The days when its members confined themselves to self-help study groups, and avoided controversy, are gone forever.
The 435 local branches, supported by the national U3A, organise self-help courses for "third agers" - generally elderly or retired people, or those whose children are now grown up.
Today, the U3A "actively looks for ways to be heard. We press for representation on lifelong learning bodies," Kate Wedd, its newly-elected chair and a former comprehensive headteacher, told the conference.
She will be encouraging local branches to seek representation on the new learning partnerships, so that the interests of the older learner are not overlooked. She will also be seeking public funding to support the work of U3A.
Though the organisation has 100,000 members nationwide and is growing at the rate of 15 per cent annually, there was a strong feeling at the conference that more needed to be done in the inner-cities. The organisation is strongest in rural areas and the more affluent suburbs.
Vice-chairman Hilary Greenwood said: "We're aware of the lack of U3As in inner-city areas. I tried to start a U3A in Whitechapel and it folded for lack of support. I've tried in Islington and will try again." There were, however, thriving branches in Tottenham (mostly run by members of ethnic minorities) and Redbridge. "A lot depends on how much the local authority will help," she said.
Bob Smith, of Sheffield U3A, provoked the loudest applause of the conference when he said: "I hope that perhaps in five years' time at this conference we will ee 10 per cent from ethnic minorities." Sheffield, he said, had 1,700 members, but most come from the better-off areas of the city. "If you are going to set up in inner-city areas and poor areas, you have a huge job. You are working with people who lack the confidence to be group leaders."
The 260 delegates registered a firm protest against the popular image of older people. Mrs Wedd said that people imagined them to be "inactive, ill, poor creatures living on benefits and contributing little to society". She told the conference that people say things like "wonderful old thing considering her age" but: "We are well able to hold our own. We teach together and we learn together, we draw on our zest for life."
The conference also decided to play an active part in the campaign to save public libraries. Ron Sands, of Richmond-on-Thames U3A, told the conference that, since 1988, the number of libraries open for more than 45 hours a week has dropped from 730 to 500, and spending on book funds has reduced in real terms by nearly 50 per cent.
The conference condemned the "widespread deterioration of the service due to underfunding". Properly-funded, the library service "can make an effective contribution to lifelong learning," it said.
Mr Sands said that local councils were short of money and faced caps on council tax. There was also a problem with their priorities, and libraries were often a target for cuts. "It is the formal education system that has been given priority, despite the Government's enthusiasm for lifelong learning," said Mr Sands.
Locally, U3As could make a difference, said Mr Sands. They should make sure they know what is happening to their local libraries, should support or start Friends of Libraries groups,
and should bombard local MPs, councillors and newspapers with