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The People’s Free University – A manifesto.

December 17, 2010

Higher education is at a crisis point. The government has already passed legislation (both in the Commons and the Lords) which means that the English HE system will be the most expensive public university system in the world.

Regardless of the fact that it remains essentially ‘free at point of use’ (in that there will be no up front charges, and courses will be paid for through loans), the spectre of at least £18,000 of debt for tuition alone (with the addition of far more debt to pay for accommodation and maintenance) is likely to put many people off applying for university, not because of their ability, but because of their personal and family economic circumstances. When the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) on the spurious grounds that it is unaffordable is taken into account, the proposals will hugely impact the ability of the poorest in society to access education. (The IFS argue that the cost is ‘completely offset’ by the benefits).

Part of the reason that the Government has succeeded in enacting these policies, however, is public opinion regarding academic study and the function of the university. Although the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the function of a university is to provide ‘mainly non-vocational’ subjects for study, the government has argued that a degree is a ticket to better employment prospects, using this to justify increased fees and diminished government support. Essentially, characterising university as a vocational education for ‘City’-type jobs, and then refusing to fund the humanities as they have no direct economic value.

The ability to redefine the university in order to justify policy is a result of the inherent disconnection between universities and the communities within which they exist. ‘Town versus Gown’ conflicts are symptomatic of the problem, and if we are to regain the university as a seat of academic study rather than a corporate training institution, they are conflicts which need to be resolved.

I propose our own re-definition of the university, according to the word’s etymology. A university is the entirety of something, so that one could have ‘the university of people’ meaning ‘all people’, or the ‘university of knowledge’. Thus, a university should not serve only its current members, or only those able to pay, or government interests, or corporate interests, but the whole of the society in which it finds itself. Indeed, this university is synonymous with society.

This is not merely a pipe dream, but something I believe could be fairly easily achieved through the introduction and publicising of regular, free discussion forums within universities and open to the public. These discussions would cover the whole range of subjects studied in universities, and not be limited to a narrow, didactic ‘lecture’ format, but would be led by postgraduate students and lecturers in order to provide a non-hierarchical forum which admits all points of view, and introduces the public to areas of knowledge of which they would not necessarily be aware.

The following is a tentative manifesto for such a university – feel free to comment and add your own thoughts!


Part 1 – Philosophy.

i) A university should serve the whole of the society in which it finds itself, regardless of ability to pay.

ii) If it is deemed that full-time students MUST pay, the knowledge that they obtain should not be limited by financial constraints.

iii) A university studies all subjects from a non-vocational point of view. It is not primarily a corporate training-ground, and should not be treated as such.

iv) It should therefore not behave in a way that the society within which it exists can characterise it as such.

v) This implies that universities should have an open and interactive relationship with their local communities.

Part 2 – Practicalities:

i) Universities should offer services including but not limited to open study sessions which are provided by members of the academic community without an expectation of payment. Indeed, such events will provide valuable academic and discursive training for postgraduate students.

ii) Such services should be non-hierarchical. The role of the session’s ‘facilitator’ is to open the discussion and present their own specialist knowledge to a non-specialist audience, in a comprehensible manner, and enable discussion.

iii) The facilitator’s role is NOT to parade their knowledge/intelligence in front of the group, but to enable to the group to engage with this knowledge, introducing them new ideas.

iv) Such study groups should be ‘safe spaces’, to which all are welcome regardless of background or ability.

Part 3 – Aims:

i) To integrate the university as a part of society.

ii) To challenge elitist perceptions of universities.

iii) To challenge media presentations of students as selfish and uncommitted

iv) To effect a shift in the paradigm within which higher education is construed.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 21, 2012 2:15 pm

    all good so far!
    and support for trade unions to teach apprentices.

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