Education: The age of uncertainty

Later learning enriches the lives of thousands of elderly people. But widespread library closures could spell an end to many of these study groups

The mass closure of public libraries is hitting older people and retired people who want to learn and keep their minds active. The sort of learning that goes on in the University of the Third Age (U3A) – the learning that retired people do because they want to do it, not because they need it for their careers – will be worst hit.

We know how serious it is because our 250,000 members are telling us. U3A study groups rely on public libraries for source materials. Some older people rely on a nearby library, or a mobile library, that will not be there next year. Many U3A interest groups depend on local libraries for research materials, and more than 30 U3As have told U3A News they are involved in campaigns to save their local libraries. Some 800 public libraries are expected to close around the country, about a fifth of the total.

The Government ought to be encouraging the U3A – it fits all the criteria the Prime Minister outlined earlier in the year. It requires no state funding; it is self-created and self-directed. It is a real example of people taking their learning into their own hands – we have no teachers, only group leaders who co-ordinate a group's efforts to learn. Our members fund it themselves, teach it themselves, and take all their own decisions.

One of many U3A members who have been in touch with us about libraries is Karen Jonason of Lewisham in south London, who began her retirement last summer by starting a campaign to save her local library from closure. The borough has 12 libraries and councillors want to close the five smallest.

Karen says: "Judging by the comments in the online petition I set up, they are particularly valued by older people, who fear they will become increasingly socially isolated as their neighbourhood libraries are closed." Karen and her fellow campaigners presented petitions with 20,000 signatures to the council before Christmas, backed up by street stalls and demonstrations at the town hall.

Haddenham U3A's 240 members are trying to save the well used local library, which serves their 5,000 inhabitants and surrounding villages in Buckinghamshire. Secretary Peter Wenham says: "Haddenham U3A, as a learning organisation, is determined to maintain a visible library service. From the U3A perspective, apart from the general use by many members, our book and play-reading groups rely on the library." The county council is advocating the replacement of librarians by volunteers. Some local U3A members would be prepared to volunteer but only if there is professional help, and they are not prepared to put librarians out of a job. Also, they cannot raise the £76,000 projected expenditure for 2010-11.

Sometimes reductions that seem quite small can have a devastating effect on our study groups. The Music Appreciation Group of Pembrokeshire U3A borrows CDs from local libraries. Its leader, Brian Harvey, says: "These have now been withdrawn and are only available online. However, there is no catalogue available, which makes locating what we need well nigh impossible. Additionally, ordering CDs is like negotiating a minefield."

Some of our older members are especially concerned. Alan Orme and his wife are nearly 80 and facing the loss of the mobile library service to Liss Forest. The library only visits on alternate Fridays from 11.55am to 12.20pm, but it's a lifeline – Alan and his wife partly arrange their diaries around its arrival. Alan says: "It will be difficult going the 1.2 miles to the occasional mobile in Liss [if that continues], let alone the six miles to Petersfield, or 10 miles to Alton, to the main libraries. We know that once lost, it will never return."

Ninety-year-old Nora Dunn, a U3A member in Oxfordshire, reports that her local library, situated in the local school and used by the children as well as the villagers, is threatened with closure. She tells me: "It will particularly affect my husband and myself because we are both housebound. I'm not looking forward to a bookless future."

Jeremy Senneck is chairman of Southwater U3A, where they waited 35 years for a promised library following a lot of new development. When it opened, five years ago, they were horrified at the short time that it was going to be open. Now a further cut in hours means that a village of 10,000 people gets three mornings and three afternoons per week.

U3A members Jackie and Colin Aylott tell me that Surrey Heath Borough Council is proposing to cut their weekly mobile library service in Windlesham from August. This means either a two-mile journey to Bagshot or a five-mile journey to Camberley for the nearest library service. Many of the villagers cannot drive, there are only two buses a day, and those are under threat too.

The U3A is resolutely non-political. It gets no direct help from central or local government, and asks for none. It's not for us to enter into arguments about how best to deal with the economic crisis, or what scale of cuts is needed, or whether central or local government is to blame. But it's been proved that continuing to learn into retirement keeps older people healthy, mentally and physically, which benefits both them and the health service.

It requires nothing from the public sector except a level of infrastructure, and in particular, good public libraries everywhere. Taking that away is appallingly short-sighted and, even in economic terms, it will cost more in the long term.

Ian Searle is chairman of the University of the Third Age

Learning at leisure

The University of the Third Age (U3A) was founded in 1982 to provide learning opportunities for people in their third age – people who no longer need to work full time or look after young children. The three founders were Michael Young (who also helped found the Open University), Peter Laslett and Eric Midwinter, and it took off after an avalanche of letters followed an interview with Eric Midwinter on the radio programme You and Yours.

The founders' principle was that groups of people would get together to learn what interested them, and would have, not a teacher, but a group leader, who might not know any more than the others, but could co-ordinate their efforts.

The U3A has grown every year since it was founded, and there are now more than a quarter of a million members in 798 local U3As. Each local U3A is autonomous, and sets up whatever study groups it wishes.

There are no examinations, no qualifications, and no set curricula. There is a national office that provides help, advice and learning materials to U3As, but does not tell them what to do, and a national magazine, U3A News.

For more information visit, email, or telephone 020 8466 6139