Occupation education

Following the recent wave of university occupations across London, Ben Wilson looks at the emerging Free University of London, a radical alternative to the current higher education model

June 1, 2015
7 min read

London students have been meeting to plan the creation of a ‘Free University of London’, a radical alternative to the current higher education model. The meetings follow occupations at the London School of Economics (LSE), Goldsmiths, King’s College (KCL), and the University of the Arts London (UAL) at Central Saint Martins campus. They shared a commitment to free education, a democratic university, improved working conditions for staff, better services for those with disabilities and fossil fuel divestment, among other issues.

Although the occupations were most successful in bringing to the fore student dissatisfaction with the current university, the question of how these separate collective actions could tie into a wider, more cohesive and sustainable movement aimed at enacting systemic change was also ever-present.

The idea that came up repeatedly is that of a Free University of London. The ‘free university’ banner has been utilised in occupation movements around the world and was adopted as an umbrella movement in the recent wave of London occupations. But what is important now is to establish what it means and how it will function.

A systemic alternative

The emerging Free University of London has much in common with the now-defunct Free University of Liverpool, which declared higher education to be ‘a right for all, not a privilege for the few’ and opposed its marketisation.

According to Robbie, a member of the Goldsmiths occupation, the Free University of London’s remit lies not just in opposing tuition fees but in ‘offering an alternative to . . . the proliferation of finance within our universities’.

Instead of adhering to rigidly prescribed curricula in bureaucratically controlled institutions, Robbie claims it is ‘about reversing the dichotomy of privilege, and allowing access to anyone who wants to engage and learn. It’s about students and teachers having the ability to shape their own curriculum, about building a systemic alternative’ to what’s currently on offer.

What may appear an abstract concept has already been put into practice in the occupations. Occupy KCL have hosted talks and workshops on a wide range of issues that they feel their university has failed to engage with on a satisfactory level – issues like ethical investment, the liberation of oppressed and minority groups, and the implementation of policies such as the invasive measures of the new Counter Terrorism Act. Similar events were organised by the other occupations.

The responses of those who have organised and taken part in these workshops reveal an emerging pattern, which indicates how the measures taken by university administrations aren’t nearly enough in ensuring an inclusive and accessible learning environment.

Mariya Hussein, co-president of KCL Action Palestine, says: ‘We see in our seminars, our course reading, even our teaching staff, that our institutions aren’t representative of the world, and they aren’t as beneficial as they could be to us and to wider society.’ She adds that ‘diversifying the curriculum, fighting the BME attainment gap, improving diversity amongst our teachers, protecting academic freedom in the face of increasing securitisation and fighting for free education are all interlinked and all need to be won in order to truly free our education and our universities’.

This idea is not new or unique. There are many groups fighting for greater equality throughout the university system who feel their voices aren’t heard, and that the modern university privileges a certain few while pushing those already excluded further to the peripheries.

This dynamic is reflected in the university admissions process. According to a report by the Runnymede Trust published earlier this year (Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy), black and minority ethnic (BME) students were less likely to be offered a place at university even when they had the same ‘A’ level grades as other applicants. And, of course, securing a place is only the first of many hurdles that BME students, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, face in higher education.

At KCL the student union, alongside groups such as the LGBT+ Liberation Association and campaigns such as ‘Student Not Suspect’ or ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’, is actively pushing for greater equality for all members of the university community. But the engagement of groups like these in the occupation highlights how necessary it is to have alternative and inclusive spaces in which those who feel marginalised by the current system are afforded a place to speak out.

Expanding an ethos

The next step seems to be to expand this ethos and practice beyond the physical space of occupations, which because of practical constraints and the threat and reality of legal action only last so long.

Students from the occupations recently came together to discuss a long-term practical design for the Free University of London. The consensus was to create a collective of non-hierarchical working groups, similar to those of the occupations. One group, for example, will organise the Free University’s outreach, another its media presence, and another the planning and organisation of programmes and events.

Ultimately, the purpose of the Free University of London is to create a more accessible educational model and in doing so many of those involved hope to create a form of counter-hegemonic practice: ideas, practices and institutions that not only challenge the values and organisation of the contemporary university – and for some, the socio-economic system that gave birth to it – but also provide the foundations for its replacement. As Manny, one of the Occupy LSE members present at a Free University organising meeting, emphasised: ‘This is a form of political engagement putting in place the university we envision.’ It is intended to promote not just free education but ‘engagement in campaigns and forms of direct action’.

Hattie Craig, a committee member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and an active supporter of the occupations, while enthusiastic about the Free University of London, is keen to stress the importance of ‘using the spaces and alternatives we create not to retreat from capitalism but to challenge it’.

‘Occupations are about creating inclusive spaces and developing new ways of educating ourselves and each other,’ she says. ‘But so too are they about creating power and leveraging it to create change beyond the often small number of people initially involved. I hope the Free University embodies both these dimensions.’

Plans for a Free University of London have the support of a significant number of university staff. The south-east regional committee of the University and College Union (UCU) released a statement praising the ‘optimism and vision of the students as an increasingly necessary counterweight to the starved and frightened vision of the future put forward by far too many senior management groups’. The statement also expressed a desire to ‘work with them in the future to articulate a vision of a democratic, free and rich system of higher education’.

There are, of course, serious questions to consider about how to expand this still developing model beyond the university to include the wider community. The issues that led to the university occupations overlap with those in many other areas of society – housing, healthcare, the financial and the political – and the Free University of London will need to engage with these if its impact is to be felt beyond the ‘ivory tower’.

Yet if it begins to take solid shape, it might just have a key role to play in building a movement for free, inclusive and radical education that is able to sustain itself beyond unpredictable cycles of activist struggle, crackdowns by university management and police repression, and the periodic turnover of students.