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Exploring social inclusivity within the University of the Third Age (U3A): a model of collaborative research



Lifelong learning is believed to have physical, social and emotional benefits for older adults. In recognition of this, numerous programmes encouraging learning in later life exist worldwide. One example is the University of the Third Age (U3A) – a lifelong learning co-operative rooted in peer-support and knowledge sharing. This article is based on a collaborative study conducted by university researchers and members of a U3A in North-East England (United Kingdom) investigating the social inclusivity of the group in light of low attendance levels among those from social housing and non-professional backgrounds. A qualitative approach comprising semi-structured interviews and focus groups was adopted to explore knowledge and experience of lifelong learning and the U3A. Sixty individuals aged 50+ were interviewed. The demographic profile of participants largely reflected the socio-economic make-up of the area, with the majority living in areas of high socio-economic deprivation. Several barriers to lifelong learning were revealed, including: poor health, insufficient transport and caring responsibilities. Regarding U3A participation, three exclusionary factors were outlined: lack of knowledge, organisational name and location. Poor comprehension of the purpose and remit of the U3A can result in the development of ‘middle-class' myths regarding membership, perpetuating poor participation rates among lower socio-economic groups. Such perceptions must be dispelled to allow the U3A to fulfil its potential as a highly inclusive organisation.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Rebecca Patterson, Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, Baddiley-Clark Building, Richardson Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4AX, UK E-mail:


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