The concept of U3A was developed in Toulouse in 1972, to bring older people into contact with academic programs at the University. It spread rapidly through France and throughout Europe. Many universities either arranged for older people to participate in existing academic programs or established new programs specifically designed for Third Age students.

The first British U3A was established in 1982 at Cambridge. In contrast with the French experience, where U3A have a close association with traditional universities, as providers of educational programs, the British U3A have developed only outreach links with the universities.

Instead, they have embraced principles of self-help and self-determination, structuring programs and courses to meet the wishes of members and drawing on resources available within the membership as far as possible. These same principles have been adopted by U3A in Australia.