The British university where a degree doesn't mean a lifetime of debt

The British university where a degree doesn't mean a lifetime of debt
Learning for love, not money — In a society that is obsessed with consumer culture, even our education system is marketised, coming at an ever-increasing price. With students leaving university in masses of debt, the Free University of Brighton are offering a degree without the price tag. Could this be the start of an alternative education system for all?

Going through higher education can feel pretty robotic: go to university, get good grades and hope despite everything you might be able to secure a job that pays and you don’t completely hate.

In the past education may have just been for the privileged few, but what was offered taught philosophical lessons of the world, ethical values, and the history of humankind. In a recent issue of New Philosopher Magazine, Doctor Matthew Beard argued that “the idea of school is to provide a safe environment to discover new things, think about them, and use those thoughts to inform the way we live.”

The higher education system of today may have become somewhat more accessible, but we seem to have completely forgotten that there’s value beyond employability and statistics.

Free University of Brighton (FUB) are a radical organisation, who are paving the way for a more democratic, more open education. Founded just four years ago by council-worker Ali Ghanimi, the University began by offering a range of free classes and workshops organised for anyone in the seaside town of Brighton and Hove. Classes are both academic and non-academic, offering everything from “happiness and mindful creativity”, to “English as a second or Other Language”, and lessons on philosophy too.

Now, FUB have extended their services to offer a completely free-of-charge degree in Social Sciences and Humanities, making this level of education accessible to all. With modules covering subjects like alternative economics, criminology, sociology and politics, the course is democratic and diverse.

In a society where obtaining a degree requires you to fork out tens of thousands, seeing us thrown into a lifetime of debt, it’s only natural that one may be a little skeptical about a course which claims to not cost a penny. However the FUB degree has been fully validated by external academics, and is recognised to the same level of as those awarded by any other instiution. More importantly though, it’s a stepping stone to reimagining what our education system could be.

Students who join the Free University of Brighton course take part in one lesson a week, with 2-3 hours of reading or coursework. They are assessed based on attendance, class assignments and other, more creative projects.

“We don’t have exams because we don’t think that they are the best way to assess students”, Luke Martell, a Professor of Political Sociology and voluntary lecturer at FUB tells me. “There are no grades, just a pass and no fail – if an assessment needs to be improved, we just hand it back with guidance, and they carry on with it until it passes.”

In many ways, this seems a far more progressive way of learning.

The nature of the organisation promotes education for love, not for money, or for recognition in league tables. Students are no longer cash cows or consumers, but active participants in an enriching process. In some ways the line between teacher and student is blurred.

As a result of this, many of the students have actually opted out of assessment while studying at FUB. “Most of the students are here just to learn, not as a path to a job or money”, Luke continues, “they don’t see education as a consumer good that they are buying, or something where they want to get good grades and compete in.”

“I believe education should be free and accessible to all regardless of income or background”, Luke implores, when I ask him why he’s so motivated to teach without pay. “Education should be run collectively rather than by managerial power, and university should be about learning, critical thinking and self-confidence.”

It all sounds like a great addition to the utopian dream, but if you aren’t in Brighton, there are a number of organisations already existing like this in cities all around the UK and globally – Lincoln, Manchester and Melbourne to name a few.

How far the degree will be recognised by potential employers remains to be seen, some companies may well prefer a more traditional qualification for someone they’ll put on their books. But with teaching provided by the lecturers from the likes of Sussex University, and with a course validated on the same basis as any other institution, why should anyone doubt it?

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