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.
The 24 best universities in the world
The 24 best universities in the world
1/24 24. University of Edinburgh, UK — 80.3
Founded in 1583, Edinburgh is the sixth-oldest university in the English-speaking world. Extremely notable alumni include Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, and Arthur Conan-Doyle
2/24 23. London School of Economics, UK — 81.3
Leaping 11 places from last year, LSE is one of the foremost universities in Europe for studying business, finance, and economics. This shows in its graduates: According to a 2014 study, LSE produced the most billionaires of any European university
3/24 22. Carnegie Mellon University, US — 82.3
“My heart is in the work” is CMU's motto, and it's accordingly known for many inventions and innovations in the fields of driverless cars, brain science, data, and more. It was also, curiously, the first university to create a “smile” in an email, in 1982
4/24 21. University of Michigan, US — 82.4
One of the biggest research centres in the US, Michigan was attended by President Ford and Google cofounder Larry Page. Mysteriously, a large cube-shaped object sits on campus, balanced on one corner so students can spin it around despite its weight
5/24 20. Duke University, US — 82.7
One of the wealthiest universities in the country, Duke is known for its sporting prowess as much as its academics, and its basketball squad is one of the best college teams in the US. President Richard Nixon graduated from here, as did future heads of Apple, JPMorgan, and PepsiCo
6/24 19. University of Toronto, Canada — 83.9
A university known for its research and innovation, Toronto has academic papers that are among the most cited in the world. It also has a wide array of extracurricular activities, with more than 800 student clubs, which probably explains why such a high proportion of its alumni begin startup companies
7/24 18. Cornell University, US — 84.0
A private Ivy League university with a mission to “discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge,” Cornell boasts a glorious campus in upstate New York that allows students to hike around the Finger Lakes. It also has daily bell performances, a tradition dating back to 1868
8/24 17. University of Pennsylvania, US — 85.2
Established before the US even became a sovereign nation, UPenn claims to be the oldest multifaculty university in the country. It also has the nation's oldest student union and first “double-decker” football stand. Noted alumni include President William Henry Harrison as well as modernist writers Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams
9/24 16. University of California at Los Angeles, US — 85.8
UCLA is known for its encouragement of community — undergraduates usually begin with a year-long “Cluster Course,” a team-taught exploration of a demanding topic. It also has a great student-exchange program, with more than 2,400 students going abroad each year
10/24 15. Columbia University, US — 86.1
Notable alumni of Manhattan-based Columbia include Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as well as a founding father — Alexander Hamilton. It also enjoys a massive endowment value of $9.6 billion last year
11/24 14. University College London, UK — 87.1
Founded in 1826, UCL became the first English university to admit women on equal terms as men in 1878. UCL has one of the biggest postgraduate schemes in the country, at 52% of the entire student body
12/24 13. University of California at Berkeley, US — 87.2
Dropping five places from last year, Berkeley is still hugely prestigious, and its San Francisco setting makes it a real draw for students looking to study in a vibrant city. It also has a legacy for activism: Some of the best-known Vietnam War protests took place on its campus during the 1960s and 1970s
13/24 12. Yale University, US — 87.4
The third-oldest higher-education institution in the US, Yale takes its cue from Oxford and Cambridge by having residential colleges. Five American presidents have studied there: William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Make that six if Hillary Clinton wins this year's election
14/24 11. Johns Hopkins University, US — 87.6
Johns Hopkins was an abolitionist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur, and he was also the first benefactor of the school, which was founded in 1876. Based in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University's notable alumni include Woodrow Wilson, the 28th US president
15/24 10. University of Chicago, US — 87.9
A leading centre of science, the University of Chicago also has prestigious literary alumni, including Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag. It is also the university where film icon Indiana Jones studied
16/24 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich, Switzerland — 88.3
Jumping four places from 2015, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is known for its groundbreaking research as well as teaching excellence in natural sciences and technology. Twenty-one Nobel laureates have studied or taught at the university, while about 80 patent applications a year come from there
17/24 8. Imperial College London, UK — 89.1
Up a place from last year, Imperial is known for its pursuit of science. Its Central London setting also makes it popular to foreign students — 51% of its student body are from overseas. The university's motto is “Scientia imperii decus et tutamen,” which means “Scientific knowledge, the crowning glory and the safeguard of the empire”
18/24 7. Princeton University, US — 90.1
Princeton is devoted to teaching, offering residential accommodation to undergraduates across all four years of study, which means 98% of them live on campus. The beautiful surroundings are attractive to tourists too: 800,00 people visit the campus each year, bringing in a revenue of $2 billion
19/24 6. Harvard University, US — 91.6
Down four places from last year, Harvard is still one of the world's most prestigious institutions. It's the oldest university in the US, and it also has one of the largest endowments of any on this list, raising $1.5 billion in 2013
20/24 5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US — 92.0
Eighty-five Nobel Laureates have studied at MIT, which was founded in 1861. The university likes to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, and its living alumni have apparently started more than 30,000 active companies
21/24 4. University of Cambridge, UK — 92.8
Up a place from last year, Cambridge isn't quite as old as Oxford University, but with an 800-year history it is still one of the longest-running universities in the world. It has more than 100 libraries, with over 15 million books among them
22/24 3. Stanford University, US — 93.9
One of the largest campuses in the US, Stanford benefits from being right next to San Francisco's Silicon Valley. President Herbert Hoover was part of Stanford's first class, in 1895, while the first American woman to enter space, Sally Ride, graduated from there in 1973
23/24 2. University of Oxford, UK — 94.2
Oxford moves up one place from last year to become the best university outside the US. For an institution that was reportedly founded in 1096, that's a remarkable run. It also boasts 30 world leaders among its alumni, including 26 British prime ministers
24/24 1. California Institute of Technology, US — 95.2
The best university in the world for the second year in a row according to the Times, Caltech is at the top in teaching, industry income, research, and citations in 2016. It is renowned for its science and engineering courses, but any degree here is sure to be a winner
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
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.Reuse content