Campus under canvas: Inside the St Paul's Tent City University

In a corner of the anti-capitalist protest camp outside the cathedral is a white marquee. Rob Hastings discovers a world of learning inside

It can be hard work trying to listen to a bookish left-wing debate on a tiny amp in a tent, amidst the sound of loudspeakers and traffic, of dogs barking and helicopters flying overhead – not to mention the occasional sickly sweet whiff of sweat and urine.

That the old sofa cushions and grotty bits of carpet inside Tent City University are far removed from the stiff-backed chairs of traditional academia, however, only makes its place as the heart and soul of Occupy London's argument for reform all the more important to its attendees. In a camp based on the ambition and belief that ideas can change the world, this is its hub.

The protesters feel critics of the camp would do well to come and listen to the level of discussion being held within the confines of its white plastic sheets. One organiser, Vera Weghmann, 26, said: "We're here because we want to discuss alternatives and not just oppose something; we're coming together in lectures and workshops to educate each other."

For some older lefties it will bring back memories of the Anti-University of London, a counterculture educational movement set up in Shoreditch in 1968 as a home for the discussion of radical politics. That attracted lectures from many key left-wing intellectuals and today's generation are being treated to a slew of experts in economics and history.

They are booked by a collective of about 30 demonstrators who came together on the second night of the Occupy London camp outside St Paul's Cathedral, sharing a joint email account and diary to ensure no single person takes control.

Yesterday brought a talk from Professor Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. "I've given over 500 lectures in different places, and I have to say the questions here are as good as anywhere else," he said. "People often talk about whether it's more important to talk to the converted or the unconverted, but I think both are very important – people should have a more sophisticated understanding of the things that they intuit."

A key day of events is coming up on 9 November, when the tent will hold workshops alongside a fresh wave of national student protests.

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