Michaela Moody is confident that new universities will be up and running in the East Midlands by September, having helped create two in Daventry and Stapleford over the winter.
Not heard of them? That's not surprising, because they are branches of the University of the Third Age (U3A). As a regional organiser for the blossoming adult education movement, Moody says it's hard to keep up with the surge in demand for places. These self-styled informal learning organisations can call themselves "universities" without requiring a royal charter or needing to teach degree-level qualifications. The status, financial independence and variety of learning styles on offer are a winning formula.
Thanks to government cuts, general non-vocational adult learning is vanishing from further education colleges and community centres at the fastest rate for a generation. At the same time, U3A membership has shot up from 250,000 to almost 400,000 in eight years and is expected to reach 500,000 by 2017.
A new age
Amid dire predictions of the death of adult education, many are asking whether the U3A might offer a template for a revival in learning for all adults, not just third-agers.
David Hughes, chief executive of adult education body Niace, thinks it could, although this would not absolve the government of its duty to provide funds. "There are costs here that individuals cannot meet and that local groups cannot be expected to pay for," he says.
This need was recognised by the coalition government and its predecessor. That is why a safeguarded community learning budget of pound;210 million a year was created in 2006 under Labour education secretary Charles Clarke to protect non-work-related adult education.
But even this small pot is at risk because of a "blinkered obsession" with vocationalism, Hughes says. "The pound;210 million was an attempt to create space to develop self-confidence and form networks - a bit like the U3As are doing," he explains. "But some providers are nervous about losing the money and are spending it increasingly on more utilitarian work in the hope that it won't be cut. It's defeating the purpose."
Hughes argues for a refocusing of such funds to create a national organisation along the lines of the U3A, which could allow economies of scale while leaving localities with the independence to develop as they see fit. "You can lever in enormous voluntary support and have a national group run locally. This would cost a lot less than pound;210 million and would deliver a lot more," he says.
Evidence of a strong desire to learn for its own sake among adults of all ages was revealed this month in the Niace annual survey for Adult Learners' Week. Six out of 10 respondents aged 25-34 expressed a desire to develop skills varying from art, gardening and creative writing to foreign languages or playing a musical instrument.
Moody is in no doubt that the disappearance of such access has helped to drive up U3A membership - the age profile has changed considerably since the movement started in the 1980s. What began as a meeting place for over-60s now attracts younger people as work and retirement patterns have changed, she says: "Third-agers include anyone not dependent on full-time employment and so we have people in their 50s."
But the founding principles remain. The learning is informal, there are no campuses, and teaching and learning takes place anywhere from hired halls to people's lounges. Administrators are unpaid (apart from head office staff). And the members decide what to learn, what to teach and what fees to pay.
Partners in their prime
Beneath the rise in local U3As, however, lies an increasingly sophisticated support structure. Moody, like other regional organisers, provides new U3As with essential support in drafting constitutions, training key people such as treasurers, shaping an offer that sticks to U3A principles and working within the rules of the Charity Commission.
People join for a multitude of reasons. When Chris retired as an agricultural consultant, he decided to take a third degree - a PhD through the University of Bradford. One thing led to another and now the doctorate has been published as a book. At 75, he says, "I had a book in me. It is easier to study after the age of 60 because you have 40 years' experience under your belt."
Another growing trend is partnerships between U3As and traditional universities. Five U3As recently teamed up with the University of Lincoln to conduct research on sleep patterns in the elderly. The U3As established focus groups and the university provided students for the research. The end product will be a questionnaire to assist agencies such as Age UK in investigating the needs of older people. Similar partnerships are being developed with universities in Newcastle, Plymouth, Sheffield and London.
"A U3A is more than a bridge or canasta club," Moody says. "It has to meet the demands of members at every level. We convene `interest groups' for those keen on specific studies. We have 28 in my U3A, Woodhall Spa [in Lincolnshire]. Others will have considerably more if the U3A is large enough."
The size of any U3A is determined by the local circumstances and will vary from about 200 members in rural areas like Lincolnshire to 3,000 in cities such as Peterborough and Sheffield.
Niace's Hughes argues that "the idea that cultural experience is local and should be supported is particularly true for young adults and yet cultural organisations are being decimated by the cuts. The new government needs to focus on this, to understand that adult education is a part of it and to get people to pay where they can afford to and to subsidise those who cannot."
Another lesson to learn from the U3A is how it encourages and trains voluntary tutors or conveners. In 2008, as part of a consultation on adult learning headed by John Denham, then secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills, the U3A produced the training manual Time to Learn - now revised and updated as More Time to Learn - to equip novice tutors with basic teaching skills. Keith Richards of the North London U3A, and co-author of the report, says the intention was to encourage take-up by other organisations.
But the cuts put a brake on such developments, Hughes says, as the focus was inevitably more on mass redundancy than on building on existing local provision. As part of a new initiative, Niace is working on the Citizens' Curriculum initiative and development of Community Learning Champions.
"This is trying to get somewhere between the self-organisation of U3A and the stuff the Treasury would be willing to pay for," Hughes says.
Ian Nash is a former assistant editor at TES