No fees… just free. An experiment that’s changed the face of study

It started out as a simple idea: get rid of fees and all the other barriers to higher education… and open it up for all. Now nearly 10 years on, hundreds of students have benefited from free education. And Free University Brighton is going from strength to strength.

A group of students with Brighton Pavilion in the background, pose with a banner reading Free University Brighton   Education for love, not money.
Ali Ghanimi, second left under the banner, with students and tutors of Free University Brighton. The city-wide education project has attracted international attention for its commitment to learning outside the mainstream. Picture: FUB’s own.

Free University Brighton (FUB) started in 2012. “We’re a pretty rare phenomenon, being one of a very few places offering free education up to degree level,” founder Ali Ghanimi told Sussex Bylines. Ali was inspired by Tent City University, set up on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral as part of the ‘Occupy’ movement in 2011.

Meeting at first in a tent, and later a disused bank, activists and passing citizens discussed a wide range of issues, such as ‘activism and education’, ‘diagnosing the state of the nation’, and ‘beyond capitalism’, attracting leading academics to contribute to their debate. 

This free, open, democratic and citizen-led form of education struck a deep chord with Ali, who at the time was unemployed and unable to afford training courses. “Why can’t we do this in Brighton?” was the question she asked friends at the time. University fees were trebling to £9,000 a year and adult education was being cut, but she was confident that knowledge lay untapped in the community, as she had seen in London, and she wondered if she could create something similar to Tent City University in Brighton, using a variety of public spaces – parks, cafés and libraries. 

Free University Brighton’s motto: Education for love, not money

In September 2012, Ali set up a simple website publicising the idea of a free university, with the motto “education for love not money.” She put out a short video asking people: “What do you want to learn? What can you teach?” and within a few months some short courses (4-6 week) were underway.

“I set up a wish list. People contacted me, then I’d set up a class. It grew from there – a jumble of adult education, from introduction to yoga and learning to play the drums, to criminology and philosophy.” FUB soon attracted the attention of national newspapers such as The Guardian, as well as growing local interest.

The next stage was talking with local academics about running a degree course. Planning sessions took place monthly over a year. The impact of higher education reforms was leading to a reduction in part-time courses and decreasing numbers of students on ‘non-traditional’ courses, as well as less favourable terms and conditions for lecturers.

Unsurprisingly, some lecturers were becoming dissatisfied, and were eager to create something completely different. “We threw out everything we didn’t like, such as fees, stratification and exams,” Ali explained, “and set up some core principles, such as learning for pleasure and personal fulfilment, and understanding possibilities for change.” 

“The rapport between teachers and students is amazing. It made me want to give something back. I offered a short course in creative writing which was well attended and a lot of fun to teach.” Maria, FUB student and tutor

They decided initially to create a degree in social science and humanities – subjects  devalued and de-funded by the Conservatives – and introduced ‘taster’ courses around the theme of social inequality. The pedagogical approach was to treat learners as co-producers of knowledge, rather than ‘empty vessels’. About 50 students initially signed up, though many dropped away in the first year. But numbers grew year on year, as did the curriculum.

There are currently 727 people signed up to FUB’s degree-level courses. Ali emphasised that the students are always involved in feedback, planning and organising the courses: “We’re run co-operatively. There’s no real distinction between tutors and students and everyone gets a say in how FUB is run.” 

To begin with, FUB used a variety of venues including libraries, pubs, cafés, church halls, community centres, and even a disused nightclub. After a few years, the GMB union offered them a more permanent venue at the City Clean depot, in return for offering courses to refuse workers. Ali told me, “It was a great step. We had premises for free, two to three classrooms and a kitchen. Having a base made it a lot easier and enabled us to expand our courses.” This arrangement continued for some years until council building work started there. FUB are currently looking for a new venue now courses are re-starting. They rely mainly on donations to fund equipment and expenses.

FUB students come from very mixed backgrounds and are aged from 18 to 80. The common denominator, Ali explained, is that they are all hungry to learn. They include some who have already studied for a degree and want to continue learning, and others who left school with few or no qualifications and want a second chance. “They see their children or grandchildren going to university and think ‘that could be me’.” 

Some students had a bad experience at school and are attracted by the easy access and lack of fees. “FUB is accessible to everyone,” Ali told me. “People can study with us as little or as much as they like. There are no exams, tuition fees or debt, and the focus is on education that empowers people and is socially useful.”

“It was my lifelong dream to study at university but finances prevented that. FUB has given me the opportunity. It has broadened my thinking and opened up my mind to other views and possibilities.” FUB student.

The flexible provision means that students come and go, but Ali said: “It’s not a problem. We’re happy for people to use it as they want.” The vast majority attend out of interest, though some want to continue to university and attending FUB courses is partly about building confidence in their learning abilities.

Though legally FUB cannot award a degree, the first and second years of our degree-level course in social science and humanities were validated by independent academics in the same way as for other universities. Students are also offered certificates – which for some are hugely important – based on attendance or assignments. 

Learning was a lifeline during the pandemic lockdown

During Covid pandemic lockdowns, teaching had to move online using Zoom, and this provided an unexpected lifeline for students who are vulnerable or socially isolated. 

“I joined FUB’s course on the British Empire last year and have attended others since. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s given me a purpose and helped me adjust to retirement during a pandemic.” Marian, FUB student.

Face-to-face classes are now resuming and FUB is actively seeking new tutors for the coming term. Each year FUB develops into new areas: projects that have sprung up include a film club, a photography group, a philosophy discussion group and a women’s DIY group. In 2019, some FUB tutors began setting up a sister project, Free University London.

This year, students and tutors have been working together to set up a publishing imprint called FUBtext (like ‘subtext’): the first publication planned is The Questioning of Intelligence by one of FUB’s regular philosophy tutors, John Thornton. Once published, John plans to use the book to teach a FUB course. 

Since its inception, there has been considerable interest in FUB both nationally and abroad, and a number of articles have already been published about it. Ali is justifiably proud of what FUB has already achieved: “There are a couple of other free universities, but not on this scale. We provide education that is a genuine alternative to mainstream universities and colleges. We’re transforming lives.” 

With Ali Ghanimi’s energy, enthusiasm and experience, and the involvement of like-minded colleagues, FUB’s contribution to the community is bound to grow further.  Final word to an FUB student, who said: “It has reminded me of the joy of studying. It’s turned my world upside-down and given me some hope for the future.”

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