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Photography Michael Segalov

A free university has just opened in the UK

In response to rising course costs and government cuts, the Free University Brighton is offering fee-free higher education

It’s been a monumentally shit few years for the British university system. Tuition fees – once non-existent – have trebled to £9,000 pa. Student grants – once a vital study aid – have been completely abolished. So when stats confirm that the UK’s universities are officially the most expensive in the world, it doesn’t even feel like a surprise. Of course they are. We’re stuck with a government that refuses to see education as a right, rather than a privilege.

While many have found their own ways to protest against these soaring costs, there are others who are trying to secure more sustainable options. This includes the Free University Brighton (FUB). The south coast institution, founded in 2015, is offering an alternative to the backbreaking debt served up by standard universities – by offering its students totally fee-free tuition for its higher education courses.

The aim, according to a course summary, is to provide student-led learning “for love” rather than money. “(The tuition fee hike and government cuts) got me thinking about the dire situation education was in, and how inaccessible it was for many people,” explains FUB Founder Ali Ghanimi. “Then I went to Occupy London and saw their Tent City University – people creating the means to educate each other, about things that impacted their lives and what they could do to affect change. I thought if that could happen in a tent by the steps of St Pauls, why not in all towns and cities using public space on a more permanent basis?”

“We have students who thought they would never have studied to university level, and now they are empowering themselves in all sorts of ways” – Ali Ghanimi

FUB apparently offers a range of degree-level courses in social sciences and humanities, though Ghanimi stresses that the structure is “quite different” from a conventional university. She claims that the course content is “cooperatively organised”, with subjects ranging from Criminology, Sociology, Philosophy, Media Studies, Political Economy, Gender Studies and International Relations. “We offer all sorts of educational events,” Ghanimi claims. “We have been validated in the same way as conventional universities so the quality is the same.”

Due to the amount of volunteers and free venues available in Brighton, FUB has managed to keep fee-free without applying for any grants or trust funds. According to Ghanimi, it’s a no-strings-attached system they want to keep up for as long as possible. “We are very happy to receive donations from people who support what we are doing,” she says. “One of the main barriers we face now that we are growing is finding enough free, wheelchair accessible venues. We are always keen to receive help with that... We just want it to be sustainable.”

While FUB is not the first to try and execute this idea (Edinburgh’s Ragged University, Lincoln’s Social Science Centres and London’s IF project all attempt to offer fee-free education), it hopes to be one of the most stable options – especially in the ominous wake of Brexit. “I think we all have the power to change things,” Ghanimi assures. “The first step is recognising things are wrong and wanting them to be different. Free University Brighton is about reclaiming education, creating education on our own terms.”

“We are doing it on a small scale, but if more join in the scale increases,” she adds. “And sometimes even small scale is enough as it changes lives – as our students have told us. We have students who thought they would never have studied to university level and now they are empowering themselves in all sorts of ways.”

Read more about Free University Brighton on their official website here.