The benefits associated with engaging in lifelong learning in later life are well documented most notably improved intellectual function lower incidence of loneliness and isolation and increased ability to cope with illness. Numerous formal and non-formal learning opportunities exist across the globe. One such opportunity is the University of the Third Age (U3A), an international organisation promoting engagement in lifelong learning in retirement (http://www.u3a.org.uk). The UK variant of the U3A is highly successful and constantly expanding to accommodate an increasing membership. Currently there are 959 branches throughout the country, with around 343,000 members. Whilst the U3A is evidently popular and enjoyed by many, the demographic make-up of most UK branches does little to challenge evidence indicating polarisation of engagement in lifelong learning opportunities along demographic lines (age, sex, socio-economic status, educational attainment). Reflecting U3As elsewhere in the world, the UK membership largely comprises white, middle-class, well-educated women. While this skew in membership is a well-documented concern within research on the U3A, little-to-no research has been conducted to explore why this polarisation occurs in the UK. A recently published collaborative study conducted by academics at Newcastle University in the UK alongside members from a North East England branch of the U3A sheds some much needed light on this area (http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A97mCFiR.66/o2).

This research is a rare example of research conducted by U3A members for the benefit of the U3A organisation. Concerns about the disparity between local area demographics and group membership prompted committee members to submit a proposal for a qualitative study exploring the social inclusivity of their branch to the North East competition ‘Research Ideas from the Third Age’ (RITA). Their idea won favour with the judges and they obtained first prize. Following this the group worked alongside academics from Newcastle University to obtain funding which would allow them to turn their proposal into a research project, including an award from BSG’s Averil Osborn fund. Successful in this venture they began research in June 2013, focusing specifically on exploring low participation in the U3A branch among those with no further education, blue-collar backgrounds and living in social housing. Through this they hoped to identify barriers and potential ways to overcome them. Data was jointly collected by university researchers and U3A members in the form of interviews and focus groups with 60 local retirees not engaging in U3A activities.

The most notable barriers to engaging in lifelong learning in retirement were: transport issues, poor health, and caring responsibilities, often in combination. Individuals seldom have only one reason for not participating, rather reasons for non-participation were multifactorial. Participants were often subject to a number of interrelated barriers which proved difficult for them to overcome. Specific barriers to joining the U3A were: lack of knowledge, organisation name, location and transport links. While the U3A researchers had suspected that the group location and poor bus service may be an issue for some local residents they were surprised by the other barriers identified, particularly poor local knowledge of their group, believing they were promoting their group well within the community. Interestingly, some features of the U3A documented as potential barriers by research conducted outside of the UK proved insignificant among this population, namely membership cost and the feminisation of the group. This highlights the value of conducting exploratory research of this kind, rather than generalising research findings from alternative locales.

Since the completion of this study the U3A members have concentrated on using the findings to implement practical strategies to engage a broader range of individuals and thus hopefully improve the social inclusivity of their group. These include outreach in the form of talks to promote the purpose and remit of their group: dispelling the myth perpetuated by the organisational name that the U3A is for middle-class individuals and the idea that one can become ‘too old to learn’. The U3A researchers have relocated the group to a modern location with good public transport links and ample parking.  Through the contribution to the field of educational gerontology and the practical outcomes to widen the inclusivity of the group, this study demonstrates the power of collaborative research.

Rebecca Patterson, Suzanne Moffatt, Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University