Joel Lazarus: Understanding the Emergence and Growth of ‘Free Universities’ in the UK Today

Introduction: Seeking Kindred Spirits

My name is Joel Lazarus. I spent five years working on financial trading floors after leaving Leeds University in 1998. In 2003, I left to get a postgraduate education that took me first to SOAS and then to Oxford. I completed my PhD in October 2011 and currently eke out a meagre living by teaching at several universities. Like so many others, I have grown increasingly disillusioned with the corporate, commodified direction higher education has taken. Being at Oxford in particular, I felt very strongly that I did not want to use the education that I have been so privleged to receive to perpetuate an elitist system.

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 pedagogy1 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. By ‘critical pedagogy’, I refer to an ‘educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action’.2 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, in order to join 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 that there was no disagreement, or 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 social reality: richer, freer, fairer. 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 or 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 nine 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 Bachelor’s, Master’s, or doctoral degree.

Creating the Free University Network

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. More recently, I have become acquainted with the emergence of Birmingham Radical Education (bRE(a)d), Free University Brighton, and Cardiff People’s University, among others.

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 for an initial meeting in March 2012 and the Free University Network was born.

The FUN Conference

Following this initial success, Sarah Amsler (from Lincoln University and the SSC) and I brought 40 people from all over the UK to Oxford on the 1st-2nd December 2012. The vast majority of participants were involved in alternative, radical education initiatives of various kinds. Using a participatory methodology adopted from the Urban Land Committees in Venezuela, we explored ways to sustain and grow these initiatives in a climate of minimal material resources and the stressful, precarious employment in which most of us find themselves. The conference exceeded my expectations. There was a strong general desire and determination to build a real and lasting network, in both the virtual and physical worlds, in which all individuals and groups involved in popular, democratic education projects could learn from and support each other. There seems to be an agreement that this will be called the ‘Free Education Network’, with the Free University Network linked into this broader movement.

Why now? Based on my experiences thus far, I propose to offer a few thoughts on this embryonic movement: why this is happening now in the UK and beyond, what the free university is and can be, and what all this means for the future of higher education. This explosion of free universities and alternative educational initiatives seems to be a global phenomenon. I am aware of similar developments in the USA, Canada, Spain, and Chile, but suspect that they can be found in many other countries as well. This is unsurprising, perhaps, since the current push towards the commodification of education, and the struggle against it, is global in scale and nature. Next is an observation that it is the overworked, and precarious circumstances in which academics find themselves today that seem to be a crucial driving force behind the creation of free universities.3 I suspect that many individuals working on and in free universities wish they were not needed. Most individuals who contribute to free universities are still, of course, working within 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 such campaigns.4 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’?

So, what is a ‘free university’? I propose to identify three ways in which free universities are ‘free’. First, of course, it 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 each month of those student-scholars in employment is recommended. Access to a debt-free higher education is surely a highly attractive alternative for ordinary people unable to even contemplate accruing a debt of £40,000 or more for their Bachelor’s 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 if they are increasingly receiving very low pay for their teaching?; and 2) why would anyone choose to study at a free university for several years without getting the qualification at the end, and the access to potentially higher wages and greater career opportunities it can confer?

After discussing this question in very concrete ways at the FUN conference, I can say that it remains a huge obstacle. However, there are ways and means to overcome it, which were creatively explored by individual groups: the FUN will hopefully serve to bring those involved in free university initiatives to share strategies and offer mutual support. 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 socially transformative function 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 will recognise the value of this qualification.

At the same time, it must also be emphasised that the education experienced in free universities can be potentially, I believe, qualitatively superior to the educational experience of the vast majority of fee-paying, debt-incurring consumer-students enrolled in mainstream universities. On a personal level, I 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.5 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? In today’s crisis-ridden economy, the attainment of these things by obtaining a Bachelor’s degree is far from guaranteed. Is this pursuit the pursuit of material gain, wealth, power for its own sake? Or are all these things pursued as means to achieving happiness?

It could be argued that the free university critical education is not the optimal path to material gain, but nor is it the path to debt and the emotional and psychological stresses and pressures that debt so often brings. Furthermore, if critical thinking helps one form one’s 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 eudaimonia. 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 thought and action. Universities and the vast majority of academics within them function as conduits and producers of knowledges that justify and legitimate an unjust social order. I have experienced this in my own life both as student and as an 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.

Finally, I like to think of free universities as a direct two fingers up to the ConDem coalition government. The government is aggressively encouraging (read ‘forcing’) schools to become ‘academies’, thereby ‘liberating’ them from local education authorities—that is, oversight and regulation by organisations mandated by democratically elected councils. This is accompanied by the welcoming of the formation of ‘free schools’ run by parents themselves. At the same time, in higher education, ‘freedom’ is central to the government’s discourse surrounding its reforms. The government even wants to free up the use of the title ‘university’ itself, making it easier for ‘alternative providers’ (read ‘private firms’) to use and profit from the name. In reality, the freedom of which the government speaks is in fact a higher education sector ‘free’ from state support; a higher education sector in which private firms and financiers are ‘free’ to exploit profit-making opportunities; a higher education sector ‘free’ of teaching and research that have no market value; and, ultimately, a higher education sector ‘free’ of critical thought and practice. In contrast, the freedom that many free universities promote is antithetical to that of the government. This antithesis reflects the fundamental struggle in capitalist societies: freedom of people versus the freedom of capital. In sum, free universities are a small but significant part of the fight for the right of all people in the UK to access free, democratic education.

Free Universities and the Crisis

The neo-liberal mode of capital accumulation is facing a deep economic and political crisis. An existential ecological crisis also looms large. Deep resentment, cynicism, and hopelessness seem entrenched in large parts of our society. Indeed, perhaps the greatest crisis of all is our current crisis of imagination. We seem unable to envisage alternative structures for our society, our economy, our politics, our planet. And, 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; it has the desire and ability not just to imagine alternative realities, but to dare 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. Chomsky, writing in the early 1990s, raised hope when he wrote that ‘the popular movements have had significant success in education and raising consciousness, and in imposing constraints on state violence, thus enlarging the scope for freedom and justice. It is that factor, whatever its weight, that will be the primary concern for people who regard themselves as moral agents’.6

It is in this crucial sense of the transformative power of education that the emergence of free universities is an important development, and I encourage all readers to get involved in this or other popular education initiatives. •

Joel lazarus teaches international relations, international political economy, and international development at Oxford, Reading, and SOAS and co-founded both the Free University Network and a popular education project called ‘PPE (People’s Political Economy)’ in Oxford.

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2  H Giroux, ‘Lessons from Paolo Freire’, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 27th, 2010.

3  See ‘Survey reveals hidden high stress levels and long-hours culture at universities’ at http://www.ucu.

4  See Campaign for a Public University at

5  C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

6  N Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, London: Vintage, 1992, p. 173.


  1. Pingback: Understanding the Emergence and Growth of ‘Free Universities’ in the UK Today | The Social Science Centre, Lincoln

  2. Rosie

    Thank you for this article! I am very disillusioned with the current university system in the UK. Now I am studying in Holland (as it is much cheaper here) but they are introducing the same cuts as we saw in British universities in the past few years, turning universities into ‘cookie factories’ where knowledge is seen as a commodity and the students are referred to as ‘customers’. I am seriously considering doing a Master’s or PhD at a Free University in the UK.

  3. Pingback: Further reading about the free uni movement |

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