RUTIS – Universities of the Third Age Network Association in Portugal

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) This case study is part of a series of international policies that focus on easing the transition to retirement and later life. The case studies and the accompanying report were produced for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).

Portugal is predicted to experience a strong demographic shift and a significant rise in old-age dependency over the next 30 years, compared to other European Union members. This situation has prompted Portugal to develop policy measures on active ageing and the improvement of the quality of life of elderly people.

Universities of the Third Age (U3As) help promote active ageing by offering education to older adults, but the U3A model used in Portugal prior to 2005 only offered informal education and was growing at a relatively slow pace. RUTIS (standing for in English - Universities of the Third Age Network Association) was created in 2005 to address this problem. It aimed to “promote active ageing, defend, represent and invigorate the Senior Universities and encourage social participation of older people”. With the inception of RUTIS, the numbers of U3As significantly increased and the option of a more formal education at tertiary education institutions was introduced. At the end of 2016, the Portuguese government gave its official and legal recognition to the Senior Universities and RUTIS through a resolution of the Council of Ministers, acknowledging RUTIS as “a fundamental partner for the development of active aging and social economy policies”.

The challenge

Between 2016 and 2050, Portugal's population is predicted to decline by more than 13 percent, but at the same time the elderly population will grow from 21 percent of the total population to 35 percent of the estimated total population.[26][27] In addition, according to Eurostat population projections Portugal’s old-age dependency ratio (the number of people aged 65 and older divided by the number of those aged 15 to 64) will rise from 31.1 percent in 2015 to 65.3 percent in 2050.[19] “Portugal is the EU country hit hardest by a Europe-wide demographic problem as falling fertility rates and ageing populations threaten economic growth and the provision of pension, public health and elderly care services.”[15]

Portugal will also see an increase of people aged 80 and over. The United Nations’ report from 2001, ‘World Population Ageing, 1950-2050’, estimates that the number of Portuguese over the age of 100 will increase from 300 in the year 2000 to 6,400 by the year 2050.[26] “If ageing is a widespread demographic trend in Portugal, the old ages i.e. the ways to live longevity [sic], are multiple and require distinguished policies and other adjusted initiatives.”[1]

While a low employment rate among older workers is a problem in most EU countries, it is less of an issue in Portugal, which came fourth in the ranking of EU countries for the employment dimension of the Active Ageing Index in 2012 [6] and eighth in 2014.[6] Therefore, policies aimed at increasing the retirement age are less urgent in Portugal than are other active ageing policies.[1]

The initiative

Associação Rede de Universidades da Terceira Idade [Universities of the Third Age Network Association] (RUTIS)[21] is a Private Institution of Social Solidarity (IPSS), which in Portugal corresponds closely to the European Union’s definition of a social enterprise.[1] It was created in 2005 in Almeirim, Portugal, and promotes active ageing by providing national and international representation of the Universities of the Third Age (U3As) or Universidades Seniores [Senior Universities]).[14] The U3As are universities for people aged 50 or older which are supported by public entities or not-for-profit associations that offer learning, culture, leisure, sport and solidarity activities.[16]

RUTIS not only coordinates meetings and activities on behalf of its members through national and international initiatives such as festivals, training sessions, trips, congresses and meetings, but also supports research into active ageing and gerontology, and provides technical support and information on how to set up new U3As. By these means, it has helped to expand U3As across Portugal as well as helping different U3As to align their goals and activities.[14]

RUTIS is also a member of the Conselho Económico e Social do Estado Português [Portuguese State Economic and Social Council] and is the only domestic institution with an agreement with the state to promote active ageing and represent senior citizens’ universities.[17][20]

The public impact

RUTIS’s role in helping set up new U3As has resulted in a significant increase in the number of U3As across Portugal. In 2001, three years before the RUTIS network was formed, 5,077 older adults were enrolled in a total of 26 different U3As in Portugal, and the number of new U3As was growing at a slow pace.[14] In 2018, the RUTIS network had 305 U3A members, with 45,000 senior students and 5,000 volunteer teachers in Senior Universities.[21]

Moreover, the impact on participants of the U3A universities’ activities has been shown to be positive. For example, results from quality of life questionnaires and physical fitness tests have shown that seniors who participate in U3A activities in Portugal at the Senior University of Odivelas performed better in certain aspects of physical fitness tests, such as lower body strength, compared to seniors not attending U3As. The U3A attendees also scored higher in the physical section of the quality of life questionnaire.[25]

The positive effect of U3A attendance on quality of life has also been reported in other studies, such as the study of ‘Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in Portugal’ by the Association of Improvements and Social Welfare of Pias.[4] Another survey study of 78 attendees at a Senior University in Elvas, Portugal reported that 79.5 percent of the group did regular sports practice. Before entering the senior university, as many as 66.7 percent of the participants stated that they never used to practise regular physical activity before.[13]

Written by Linnéa Larsson

This case study is part of a series of international policies that focus on easing the transition to retirement and later life. The case studies and the accompanying report were produced for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Public Confidence Strong

Public confidence in RUTIS and its president, Luís  Jacob, has been strong, as evidenced by the numerous awards given to the organisation and its president. For example, in 2013 Luís  Jacob won the Hero of the Year prize, awarded to personalities who do outstanding work in Portugal’s social sector.[18] “This award recognises the work of the president of RUTIS for the elders over the years and follows the recent recognition of RUTIS as a model project at European level.”[18] (translated from the Portuguese)

Four years later, RUTIS won both the Life Long Learning (LLL) awards in Portugal’s LLL week [28] and the ALV 2017 Week Prize, issued by Associação Direito de Apreender.[29] “RUTIS deserved this award, both for its significant number of members and, consequently, by the thousands of adults involved, as well as due to the great consistency and sustainability of the action it has developed since 2005, namely through participation in national and international networks and projects.”[29] (translated from the Portuguese)

Stakeholder Engagement N/A

There is no information available on the level of stakeholder engagement prior to the formation of RUTIS.

Political Commitment Strong

In the years leading up to the formation of RUTIS, there was already a national momentum for promoting active ageing – a National Plan on Active Ageing had been developed in 2002 by the Portuguese government together with the World Health Organization, and three years later Portugal started a National Employment Plan for promoting the employability of older workers, which continued until 2008.[1] At the same time, there was a debate in Europe on how to plan for a demographic shift and an increasing ageing population, initiated by the European Commission.[1][8][10] As a European Union member, Portugal’s government therefore had a major incentive to back national initiatives and policies aimed at these issues.

At the end of 2016, the Portuguese government gave its official and legal recognition to the Senior Universities and RUTIS through a resolution of the Council of Ministers, acknowledging RUTIS as “a fundamental partner for the development of active ageing and social economy policies”[7] and making Portugal the first country in the world to have a regulation for Senior Universities. “The results of the action of the Academies – ‘Senior Universities’ – are unquestionable as to the wellbeing that they provide, both in reinforcing the perspectives of insertion and social participation, and in improving the conditions and quality of life of the people who attend them.”[7]


Clear Objectives Strong

The principal objective for RUTIS is clearly stated in Article 4 of Estatutos Rutis 2016 [RUTIS’s 2016 Statutes], which is for it to be a “social solidarity association to support the family, the community and seniors”.[11]  Some other objectives of RUTIS are to:

  • Promote active ageing in all its aspects
  • Support, unite, promote, represent and recognise the U3As, Senior Universities, Senior Academies and similar not-for-profit projects
  • Promote education and training, vocational training and lifelong learning
  • Encourage academic and scientific research in the area of ageing and citizenship
  • To promote the promotion of gender equality, preventing and combating discrimination in gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, preventing and combating violence and solidarity, citizenship and development cooperation, and defence of human rights
  • Stimulate volunteering, in and for society
  • To help create a European identity and to strengthen ties with Portuguese communities across the world
  • Defend, represent and invigorate the Senior Universities
  • Encourage social participation of older people.[11]

In turn, the goals of the RUTIS U3A members are to promote the active aging of seniors and to carry out educational, cultural, and social activities.[22]

Evidence Good

The demographic shift seen in Europe has been the subject of numerous reports and reviews calling for active ageing strategies. For example, several publications were published around the time of the foundation of RUTIS, such as the 2005 Green Paper ‘Confronting demographic change: a new solidarity between the generations’,[8] the 2006 Commission Communication ‘The demographic future of Europe – From challenge to opportunity’,[24] and a family policy called ‘Promoting solidarity between the generations’, which was launched in 2007.[10]

The analysis from the reports indicated a need to encourage “active ageing”, initially through extending the retirement age, which created a need to increase older workers’ qualifications and employability.[14] European Union members, including Portugal, were therefore encouraged to invest in the learning of their older workers. In addition, it was recommended that EU countries invest in the learning of retired people, as they are in better physical and mental health than retirees in the past, and life expectancy post-retirement is greater than in the past.[14]

Feasibility Good

RUTIS was a feasible project, as there was already a policy for adult education in Portugal – Article 73 of the 1976 Portuguese Constitution, which establishes that everyone should have free access to education.[30] “This law encouraged the establishment of various forms of education (including formal and non-formal) and aimed to contribute in overcoming economic, social and cultural inequalities, including the personal and social development of citizens.”[9]

Furthermore, thanks to the emphasis on the promotion of active ageing policies both nationally and internationally at the time, adult education became more a concern for public policy and not just for personal and cultural development. This helped facilitate the expansion of the U3A network and the official acknowledgement by the Council of Ministers that RUTIS was their fundamental partner in the development of active ageing and social economy policies.[14]

In terms of funding, RUTIS receives donations – from the public as well as from key partners – and grants.[21]  Its international projects have, for example, been funded by ERASMUS, the European Union’s TEMPUS programme, and ProDer [The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development].[21] According to RUTIS’s 2016 Statutes, RUTIS “may maintain and establish relationships with any agencies and entities public and private, national and foreign, with the intention of better achieving its objectives”.[11] It can also participate in share capital companies, “provided that they pursue purposes that do not appear to be incompatible with the legal and social, formative and cultural vocation of RUTIS”.[11] It is also allowed to carry out for-profit business activities, as long as it is approved by the Assembleia Geral [General Assembly].[11]


Management Strong

RUTIS’s role as a network is to provide its member institutions with the following:

  • Use of the name Senior Universities, which is a registered trademark for the exclusive use of RUTIS members, and another name for U3As
  • Participation in RUTIS activities and in the initiatives of other Senior Universities
  • Access to a university management programme
  • Special insurance for senior students and teachers
  • Support and partnerships established by RUTIS, such as computer equipment and information on national and international project grant applications.[22]

According to Article 26 of RUTIS’s 2016 Statutes, it is the RUTIS Board of Directors which has the responsibility of managing RUTIS’s activities.[11] These include:

  • Managing RUTIS’ assets, funds and human resources
  • Representing the institution in court or outside it
  • Approving membership of unions, federations or confederations
  • Preparing and submitting the annual report of activities and management accounts, as well as a budget for the following year to the General Assembly
  • Appointing and guiding the functioning of the Advisory Board
  • Signing agreements, business and protocols appropriate for RUTIS
  • Drawing up internal regulations.[11]

Before the formation of RUTIS, U3As in Portugal were mainly associations managed by retirees.[14] By 2017, the majority of U3A associations were managed by not-for-profit organisations, such as local and city councils, tertiary education institutions, and Rotary clubs, and only 30 percent were managed by retirees.[14] As previously described under Public Impact, the number of U3As has increased significantly since the start of RUTIS and under this new form of management. However, the change has caused some concern among associations still managed by retirees that the U3As are losing their independence.[14]

Another change that happened soon after the creation of RUTIS was that a more formal education model was introduced in 2006, offered by tertiary institutions and similar to the French U3A model.[14] At present, this new model coexists with the original, non-formal education model in Portugal, which is more similar to the British U3A model, except for the lecturer and student roles, which in Portuguese U3As are more distinct. Lecturers in Portuguese U3As hold active teaching jobs, are former lecturers, or are recognised as masters in a particular art or craft.[14]

Moreover, RUTIS has benefited from the strong leadership of its president, Luís Jacob, who has led the organisation from its start. He holds a degree in Social Education from the Escola Superior de Educação de Santarém, a PhD in Gerontopsychology, and has authored several books on active ageing and social economy.[18][31][32]

Measurement Fair

Portugal has recorded low scores in comparison with its EU member peers on the Active Ageing Index (AAI) since it was created in 2012. However, Portugal scores relatively highly in the AAI’s employment domain, ranking number 4 out of a total of 16 countries.[6]

As previously described under Management, RUTIS’s Board of Directors submits an annual report to its General Assembly, which includes information on RUTIS’s activities and management accounts, as well as a budget for the following year.[21] These annual reports are not made public, so it is not clear exactly what is being measured and how the information about their results is used within the organisation.

Alignment Strong

Alignment of RUTIS and its associations of U3As has been strong, as evidenced by its rapid expansion since its inception, and its well-defined network of collaborators.[14][21] The network has a designated website and key partners of RUTIS include:

  • The Ministry of Solidarity, Labour and Social Security, which has the protocol for the development of active ageing and national policies on aging
  • CASES (Cooperativa António Sérgio for the Social Economy), which develops partnerships
  • The Social Security Institute, which provides financial and technical support
  • The Municipal Council of Almeirim, which gives RUTIS financial and logistical support
  • The Montepio Foundation, which has the protocol for the development of Senior Universities
  • The PT Foundation, which promotes the use of ICT by seniors
  • Lidl, which provides equipment for the arts, music and sport activities of the Alentejo ICUs.
  • The School of Education of Bragança and the Higher Institute of Languages and Administration of Santarém, which are responsible for research and higher education

Radio Sim, which publicises the activities of RUTIS and the Senior Universities.[21][23]