The university where you can get a BA-level degree for free

The fees, the teaching quality, the syllabus and the aims: all are barriers to higher education for some people. But not any more, says Kashmira Gander. You don’t pay a penny at some “universities”, and come out with just as many benefits

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The Independent Online

It was November 2010, and a river of placards flooded the Thames Embankment in central London. Tens of thousands of people – from impressionable freshers to battle-weary trade unionists and anarchists with their faces covered by black scarves – had gathered to protest against a proposed rise in tuition fees. It was the time of the Arab Spring and, though people were angry, they were optimistic about change.

In the end, their efforts were futile and the fees went up, regardless of peaceful protests or smashed windows. But what lingered was a debate around the monetisation of education, which it was feared would turn students into consumers first and scholars second. Were the new (maximum) university fees of £9,000 a year worth it when a third of graduates were having to take minimum-wage jobs six months after graduating? 

Bored of waiting for the mainstream system to change, left-wing groups and co-operatives established an alternative: free universities which hosted short courses on anything from politics to plumbing. Among them was the Free University Brighton (FUB), which last year launched what is believed to be the UK’s first BA-equivalent degree that doesn’t cost a single penny. The 20-student strong social sciences and humanities course is about to draw to a close, and about 40 people have already signed up to start in the autumn. 

Education for its own sake is the core philosophy of the FUB and similar institutions, including the IF Project in London, the Ragged University – which operates in Edinburgh and Manchester – and the countrywide Anti University, which tends to be more of a black-scarf institution. To attract a wide demographic of eager students, particularly those who have been failed by the mainstream education system, such organisations reject entry requirements, fees, formal exams and assessments. These, they believe, simply create unnecessary competition and pressures that distract from the task in hand: learning.

As they do not receive funding, free universities hold classes at free venues, – say, a room above a pub – which appeals to their ethic of reclaiming public spaces. And while the FUB is able to use the Sussex and Brighton university libraries, all the groups encourage students and lecturers to share resources and nurture each other’s education.

While not officially backed by the Government, the FUB course is still validated by external experts, and students are taught by an impressive cohort of volunteer academics, including lecturers who are based or have worked at the respected Middlesex, Sussex, Southampton, Kingston, Brighton and Greenwich universities. As knowledge is not valued according to certificates and scrolls, talks and workshops are also run by volunteers and self-proclaimed experts from a range of educational backgrounds. 

Students need only an open mind and an interest in knowledge, says Ali Ghanimi, who founded the FUB in August 2012, after she was inspired by the Tent City University at the Occupy London camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Nevertheless, topics covered on the course – including political economy, feminism, and entry-level philosophy – will be familiar to almost any humanities student.

“We want to reclaim learning just for the pleasure of it,” says Ghanimi, “but we also think education can offer many things such as building confidence, developing friendships, opening minds to other possibilities and views, inspiring and empowering people to change their lives.”

Graded assessments are too stressful and aren’t even the best measure of learning, argues Ghanimi, but if they wish, students can submit work to be marked by their tutors. Anything that proves that they have a grasp of the concepts about which they are learning – from poems to recordings of them speaking – is acceptable. Grades, including fails, are, of course, banned. 

While students can come and go as they please, those who attend 75 per cent of the classes receive a certificate that they can show to prospective employers. But doesn’t validating the course and offering documentation go along with education being “output orientated”? Ghanimi disagrees. The validation is merely to demonstrate that the course is as high-quality as any other on the market. “We are not trying to replicate conventional universities,” she stresses.

Artist Jazy Harry, a BA-level student, doesn’t care either way. She says that gaining a certificate to waggle at employees doesn’t matter to her. Instead she values the knowledge she has gained, as well as the intellectual freedoms the course offers. “I feel as though mainstream universities often see you as a number or a target,” she says, “and if you go outside of what is expected, then you fail or are told you are wrong. Just talking through ideas with people and not feeling as though it’s for anything other than what it is [the most positive part of the FBU] unlike traditional school where it felt like you were doing something to get onto the next bit of learning.”

She’s backed by Susan Brown, lecturer in education at The Univeristy of Manchester’s Living Lab, who stresses that the role of education is about more than economic growth and helping the “brightest and best” to score well-paid jobs. “I think we need to guard against endless binaries in thinking about education,” she says. “It’s increasingly yoked to that vision at the expense of other important ways of viewing its value – for example, as a means of sustaining mental and physical well-being; and as a means of forging and sustaining healthy communities and spaces for interpersonal and or intercultural communications.”

After each lecture, I travel home on a high

Brian Berwick, FUB student

And of keeping you busy. The FUB and similar organisations have been very attractive to older people, who were unable to attend university in their youth. Brian Berwick, 60, is a retired betting shop manager and lives in Hove. Having left school as a 15-year-old without any formal qualifications, he now calls the FUB course the highlight of his week. Having had “a misspent youth”, he says “what I wanted from the FUB was the student experience and I feel very privileged to be getting it so late in life. After each event, I travel home on a high.”

This is all very heart-warming. But can it be scaled-up, or must it always remain a bit alternative, a bit “Brighton”, if you will? Rebecca Boden, professor of critical management at University of Roehampton, agrees that “the move to marketised education with fee-paying students in England means that free university experiments like Brighton almost inevitably end up using free labour to teach – and this kind of limits them as experiment.” However, the model isn’t necessarily doomed, she says, citing other institutions such as the Mondragon University in Spain and Berea College in the US that are able to offer free courses thanks to donations. Meanwhile, Professor Boden herself is hoping to establish a non-profit, possibly free, university with members of the FUB-style Social Science Centre in Lincoln.

Perhaps nothing will come of it. And perhaps, in the end, nothing much will come of the FUB. But the impression that no one gives a damn right now is what makes it so exciting.

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