Introducing the Free University Network by Joel Lazarus

My name is Joel Lazarus. After leaving university, like so many young men and women today, I went to work in finance. After five years working on trading floors in Tokyo and London, I left to get a postgraduate education that took me first to SOAS and then on to Oxford. I completed my PhD in October 2011.


Introduction: Seeking Kindred Spirits

I have no official job as such. Instead, I eek out a meagre living teaching at several universities. Like so many others, I have grown increasingly disillusioned with the corporate, marketised direction of higher education.


Being at Oxford in particular, I felt very strongly that I did not want to use the education I have been so privileged to receive in the service of perpetuating an elitist system.


Dr Gurnam Singh

A few years back, I began to look around for alternative ideas and initiatives and kindred spirits. Dr Gurnam Singh’s series of podcasts on critical pedagogy introduced me not only to the ideas of Paolo Freire and other inspirational innovators of democratic education, but also to the ideas, experiences, and personalities of individuals pioneering the theory and practice of critical pedagogy in the UK today.


Through these podcasts, I became acquainted from afar with Gurnam Singh, Steve Cowden, Joyce Canaan, Mike Neary, Sarah Amsler, and others – the kindred spirits I sought. I subsequently found out that several of these individuals had come together in Lincoln in an ambitious attempt to create a radically new model of higher education – an alternative, ‘free’ university in the heart of the city. I got in touch with them, received a warm response, and dragged my family cross country to Lincoln one Autumn weekend in 2011 to join in one of their organising workshops.


The experience of that day made a lasting impression on me. Perhaps this was my very first experience of being in a truly, radically democratic political space. That does not mean there was not disagreement, nor that power relations had somehow dissolved away. But within that space I seemed to get a sense, a feeling of the existence, perhaps just the possible existence of an alternative, far richer, freer, fairer social reality.


Everything, even the most fundamental issues, seemed up for democratic consideration, for critique, for reconfiguration: What admissions criteria should we have? Should we have any criteria at all? What about evaluation? Is it even necessary? What legitimate forms can the production of knowledge take and can we include them all? Can we, should we issue diplomas or degrees? What do we even call ourselves and our students?


I left that workshop feeling excited and energised. The Social Science Centre – the product of the inspiration and perspiration of many in Lincoln – opened its doors to its first 9 students at the beginning of this current academic year (October 2012). The journey to get to this point has been difficult, the learning curve steep, but even to achieve what they have thus far is remarkable.


They have created a co-operatively owned, democratic higher education institution where ‘student-scholars’ (as they are called at the SSC) pay what they can afford for a very different educational experience: one in which they themselves are at the heart of shaping their own learning and evaluation; one in which teacher- and student-scholars are co-producers of knowledge. At the end of their studies, student-scholars receive the ‘equivalent of’ a Bachelors, Masters, or doctoral degree.


Creating The Free University Network

Tent City University

In late 2011, I began to realise that similar free universities were being or had been established in towns and cities throughout the UK. There was the Really Open University in Leeds, the Free University of Liverpool, and, of course, London Free University which evolved out of the St Paul’s Occupation’s Tent City University. It seemed to me that these disparate, yet kindred free university groups needed to come together to share experiences and ideas, and potentially to build a network. I put the call out and received a pleasantly surprising response.


Ultimately, over 40 people came together in a church hall in Birmingham in March 2012 for an initial meeting. The day itself was a success overall, although it also became clear that there were substantive differences in ideology and practice among certain groups. Nonetheless, the Free University Network was born.


The next step, it seemed to me, was to bring people together for a conference with a far more specific, concrete agenda. Sarah Amsler (of Lincoln University and the SSC) and I got together early in the summer to put out a call for a conference that would focus participants’ minds on the very practical obstacles to sustaining and growing a free university. The call suggested a three step approach to collectively tackling these issues. First, participants needed to know and share with others the histories of democratic education in their particular localities: what initiatives had there been in the past? Who was involved? What had worked? What had failed and why? Second, participants needed to share their experiences and ideas about their current situations.


Finally, participants needed to reflect on the lessons of both past and present and devise concrete plans of action both for their own projects and, potentially, as a free university network. Both Sarah and I have been taken aback by the response to this call. We have been contacted by individuals and groups involved in pioneering popular education projects throughout the UK and even beyond. The Sustaining Alternative Universities conference will be held at the West Oxford Community Centre on December 1st and 2nd. It is shaping up to be a very exciting and productive weekend.


Why Now?

Ahead of this conference, I propose to offer a few thoughts on this embryonic movement: why it is that this is happening now in the UK (and beyond), what the free university is and can be, and what this means for the future of higher education. I begin with the observation that this explosion of free universities and alternative educational initiatives seems to be a global phenomenon; unsurprising, perhaps, since the current push towards the commodification of education, and the struggle against it, is global in scale.


Next, is an observation that it is the circumstances that academics find themselves in today that seems a crucial driving force behind the creation of free universities. I suspect many individuals working on and in free universities wish they were not needed. There are many individuals who contribute to free universities while still, of course, holding a position in a mainstream university. They are individuals who are committed to radical social transformation and who see education as pivotal to any project of progressive social transformation.


Were the university the kind of place they would wish it to be or, perhaps more realistically, were they more hopeful about the possibility of transforming the university from within, I suspect that these individuals would channel all of their energies and talents into internal struggles to transform the university into more critical, democratic educational institutions.


Of course, many individuals involved in free universities are also active in this campaign. However, it seems as if, for many, a crossroads has been reached at which the need to participate in the creation of new, alternative educational spaces – away from the personal stresses, moral compromises, and political injustices imposed on university life – has become urgent and irrepressible.


What Is A ‘Free University’?

University symbol

So, what is a ‘free university’? I wish to suggest three main ways in which free universities are ‘free’. First, of course, the free university is free in terms of offering a monetarily free or, at least, debt-free higher education. At the SSC, for example, student-scholars pay what they can.


There is no pressure to pay anything, but a donation of an hour’s wages of those student-scholars in employment is recommended. Access to a debt-free higher education is surely a highly attractive alternative for ordinary folk unable to even contemplate accruing a debt of £40,000 or more for their Bachelors degree. Of course, this debt-free model provokes two obvious responses:


1) How sustainable can such a model really be? How sustainable can the commitment of academics be when they are already overworked in their ‘day jobs’ if they are lucky enough to have them, or are increasingly receiving very low pay for their teaching? At the very least, surely this constrains any potential growth of any particular free university;
2) Why would anyone choose to study at a free university for several years without getting at the end of it the qualification, and the access to potentially higher wages and greater career opportunities this can confer?


I have no answers as yet to this first question. It will be a central element of discussion at the FUN conference. The second question highlights a real tension in the free university movement – that between the rejection of the economic instrumentalisation of higher education and the necessary recognition of the material pressures that all students face. I can only offer a personal answer. Although my primary commitment is to the intrinsic value of education, I do not reject the motive of students to obtain a degree in order to improve their material conditions. I laud the SSC’s position whereby they will award the equivalent of a Bachelors/Masters/PhD. We shall see if employers recognise the ‘value’ of this qualification.


However, at the same time, it must also be emphasised that the education experienced in free universities will, I believe, be of a nature qualitatively superior to the educational experience of the vast majority of fee-paying, debt-incurring consumer-students enrolled in most mainstream universities. On a personal level, I do believe that an education aimed at developing the ‘sociological imagination’ is an immensely empowering one, enabling the individual student-scholar to make far better decisions in his/her own life.


The question thus becomes one of ultimate ends – What are the ultimate ends of the individual pursuing a debt-incurring mainstream university degree? Material gain? Wealth? Power? First, in today’s crisis-ridden economy, the attainment of these things by obtaining a Bachelors degree is far from guaranteed. Second, is this pursuit the pursuit of material gain, wealth, power for their own sake? Or are all these things pursued as means to achieving happiness?


It is absolutely essential to critically think about the actions we are taking and the ultimate goals we think we are pursuing when taking them. It could be argued that the free university critical education may not be the optimal path to material gain, but it is most certainly not the path to indebtedness and the emotional and psychological stresses and pressures that debt brings.


Furthermore, if critical thinking helps one form their own path to emotional and sociological intelligence then it might be far safer to argue that a free university education is a more reliable path to some kind of inner peace or ‘happiness’. Ultimately, we need to have these kinds of conversations with each other, with our students, with ourselves in order to seek out a position that both recognises and responds to the very real material pressures of our current society, but unwaveringly advocates and embodies a radically alternative way of being and doing.


A second way in which the free university is free is in this very model of free thought and action. Universities and the vast majority of academics within them function as essential conduits and producers of knowledges that legitimate and justify the current unjust social order. I personally have experienced this in my own life both as student and now academic.


Critical scholars can and do create spaces for freer thinking within the university, but the politics of appointments, publishing, and funding systematically marginalises those seeking to think and research beyond the narrow realms of policy-oriented research. Free universities might not be capable of directly challenging the university in its capacity as system-maintenance knowledge industry, but they do create new spaces to think freely and to challenge received wisdoms and orthodox views.


Two Fingers up

Free Universities And The Crisis

The neo-liberal model of capital accumulation is in deep crisis, as is its accompanying political form of polyarchy (limited, political democracy). An existential ecological crisis looms large. Deep resentment, cynicism, and hopelessness seem entrenched within large parts of our society. Indeed, perhaps the greatest crisis of all is the current crisis of our imagination. We seem unable or, at least, not allowed to imagine alternative forms for our society, our economy, our politics, our planet.


Yet, as we speak, our schools and universities – central institutions through which our boundless imaginations could and should flow – are being sold out and sold off. The primary importance, then, of the free university movement is in its rejection of the status quo, of the fatal economism of our society today, and its desire and ability to not just imagine alternative realities, but to even seek to create them right here, right now.


How the free university movement in the UK and beyond will develop is very hard to say. The obstacles and challenges it faces are considerable. Yet, it is beyond doubt that the future of our society, of our species is bound up with the future of our education, and the free university movement has a lot to say and do in this area.