Education worth thinking about

The latest Green Paper in the UK on higher education puts ‘Student Choice’ as a top policy objective. But are there real choices for those who believe in “education for education’s sake”?

Barbara Gunnell
12 May 2016
Thinking AFI Image 4 Large_0.jpg

Students attending ‘Thinking: A Free Introduction’ in London. Photo: the IF Project

In the first few months of this year a small London-based charity, The IF Project, invited applications for a 10-week course at a no-fixed-abode “free university”. The course, Thinking: A Free Introduction, was free to all comers and offered university-level lectures and seminars in History, Literature and Philosophy. Those attending would not receive degrees or certificates of achievement (other than a statement of attendance if they wanted one). The objective of the course was to “challenge and empower the students to become critical thinkers”. It was pitched at those who wanted to try out university-level study, but could not or did not want to take on debt.

Some 45 Londoners of varying ages and backgrounds turned up for an introductory event. Around a dozen decided it was not for them. More than 30 people returned for the first teaching session (a lecture on literature) and almost all of them persisted with the twice-a-week sessions for the full 10 week course. Seminars and lectures attracted an average of 20-25 students per event, a high rate of retention for evening classes.  

There was no cost to those signing up. Lecturers taught for no fee; volunteers organised photocopying, printing and teaching rooms; early-career academics and PhD students conducted seminars. The postgraduates, given their own cash problems within the grant-starved university economy, were offered small honoraria made possible by a grant from the Big Lottery Fund. IF was also offered space for some of the lectures and seminars by a supporting firm of lawyers.

Most of the students had day jobs and came to the classes straight from work. One young woman travelled from Birmingham. Even in chill January and February weather, and with students obliged to switch between different venues, attendance held up.  Their persistence and enthusiasm confounds today’s orthodoxy that the main reason young people go to university is to acquire a degree that guarantees higher-paying careers. If that were indeed the main reason to consider studying, why would these students, of all ages and backgrounds, turn up twice a week to learn about and discuss, for example,  “Approaches to truth”, “London, empire and migration” and “Making sense of the world through the novel” – with no end qualification and no consequent enhancement to their career prospects? One student explained: “I have no formal education. I spend a lot of my time figuring out alternative ways to learn as much as I can about the world… This course seemed perfect for me!” Others in their end-of-course assessment said they had been attracted by the idea of learning to think critically rather than learning any particular subject.

Pubs and philosophers 

The idea of informal education groups for working people is not new.  In the nineteenth century, many of the big British cities set up Workers’ Education Associations and Left Book Clubs. Their purpose was to offer chances of study to groups excluded from establishment universities by reason of wealth, status, gender or religion. The growth of state provision of higher education and its broader social intake gradually reduced their impact. But as universities have become more career and vocation oriented there has been a resurgence of informal free higher education organisations: pub “universities”, philosophy discussion forums, alternative PPE lectures and the IF Project itself. These are not set up to improve skills or qualifications or employability. Almost all are created in the spirit of “education for education’s sake”.

These “free universities” – the quotation marks nod to the Privy Council’s exclusive  right to determine use of the word “university” - tend to be collaborative and informal: knowledge is shared, taught, debated and discussed. Most of the work and organising is unpaid, with costs kept to a minimum.

These organisations have differing origins, politics and purposes. For example, the People’s PPE aims to challenge privilege and traditional wisdom on Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the famous ‘toffs and politicians’ degree; The Free University Brighton co-ordinates discussions and talks, often in pubs, and aims to launch a fee-free three-year degree course. The IF Project has no party political agenda and does not aim to be a substitute for traditional academic institutions. 

None the less, the IF Project’s humanities-based courses do challenge today’s policy emphasis on students as consumers, argues Jonny Mundey, who designed and managed the 10-week Thinking course and the two IF Project pilot Summer Schools that preceded it. 

“IF’s experiment in no-fee higher education is a statement of belief that reading literature, debating philosophy and discussing the Odyssey are activities with intrinsic value,” says Mundey.  “Our core principle is that studying at university – like attending primary and secondary school – is a “public good” and that, like primary and secondary education, it should be free. This is against the grain of the information students get fed, that the more they enter the ‘market’, operate ‘student choice’, the better  their economic options.”

These sentiments may be idealistic, but in historical context, they are not unrealistic. Tuition was free in the UK until 1988 and remains free in Scotland for Scottish students. Germany offers tuition-free higher education. The current leader of the Labour Party believes in fee-free university tuition, as does the Green Party. It is not set in stone that England must continue to follow the United States in creating generations of debt-laden school-leavers.

Student choice?

Last November’s higher education Green Paper, “Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, spells out its core concerns in the title.  Reviewing the consultation document in the London Review of Books, literary critic and academic Stefan Collini reminds us of the traditional and still widely held belief that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry, and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance, are self-evident public goods:

“While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to … barren utilitarianism.”

And indeed, it is rare to find a senior politician today arguing the case for the intrinsic value of studying history, or offering any reason for universities or academic study beyond the need to turn out the skilled workforce an advanced economy needs.  

By contrast, the students who attended the Thinking course do clearly share the ordinary citizen’s conviction of the intrinsic value of education.  “The very act of taking part in a ‘free university’ course twice a week for 10 weeks suggests  that they do” says Mundey. One applicant for the course gave this reason for wanting to join: “I would like to meet people who love to think, who want to improve the effectiveness of their thinking… and who are passionate about learning and sharing knowledge.”

In feedback after the course, one student wrote: “The course provided me with an opportunity to be challenged, and to meet and debate with people from other backgrounds, age groups and communities. If every adult did things like this even once in their adult lives I believe our country would be a much more welcoming and inclusive place.

Degrees of debt

Fear of debt was a consideration for some of those deciding to try the IF course. Even if they are willing to take on long-term loans for tuition, they still need to support themselves for three years, and the Chancellor’s recent tweaking of the terms of repayment on existing loans may be a further deterrent. Some are simply unhappy with the idea of debt (including Muslim students for whom borrowing is religiously unacceptable). One IF student reported  “…being unable to afford university left me questioning and criticising the institutions in which we currently learn.” 

The latest Green Paper places even greater emphasis on the market, with the number of student applications determining a university’s alleged “excellence” and ultimately how much it will be able to charge in fees. Collini highlights the comedic aspect of this monetisation of students’ choices. “The protesters and ‘spongers’ of yesteryear have become the shock-troops of market forces..” he writes. Their task is to focus on “finding the least expensive course that will get them the highest paying job”.

Such a vision of education reduces the value of a degree to the economic return on investment accruing to the individual who paid for it. But you can’t easily put a value on an education in the humanities or other non-vocational subjects, so perhaps asking whether a degree will secure you a brilliant salary is the wrong question. 

The right question is whether universities are creating critical members of society, able to think for themselves. “The value of studying subjects such as history or literature may unfold over a person’s lifetime,” says Mundey. “What about the contribution he or she makes to the wider economic and social environment, the value to society of individuals who can think critically about the lives they lead, the society they live in, its problems and conflicts?”

“We will continue to offer courses in humanities subjects free of charge over the next few years. Our interventions are small-scale, but our courses do offer a slice of undergraduate-level education to those who come along (around a hundred students to date).  At the same time, we provide an alternative vision of what higher education could be. We make the argument for the intrinsic value of a humanities higher education”.

In final anonymous assessments from the students who attended Thinking: A Free Introduction, one wrote,  "I have learned to approach my thoughts and ideas with a critical mindset as well as the thoughts and ideas of others. I am now constantly on the search for evidence.”

Carl Gombrich, programme director of University College London’s Arts and Sciences BASc degree, is one of IF's academic advisers. Having also met and lectured to students, he sees the free nature of the teaching and learning as critical to its success:  "The best learning, the best exchange of ideas, the most fulfilling intellectual experiences generally come when teacher and student freely give their time simply because they want to teach and want to learn.  The IF university fosters this atmosphere … learners and teachers involved appreciate the tremendous privilege that it is to think, learn and exchange ideas openly."











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