What does Free Uni mean to you, and what should it be?

The Free University of Sheffield is only two years old – we’re a young group, and our aims and guiding principles are not set in stone. Each year we want to review what we are, and where we’re heading.

We’re asking active members, old and new, to give their thoughts on what Free Uni means to them. Why did you join? What are your aims for Free Uni? What do you think should be the guiding principles for the group? Why are we doing what we do?

If you’ve been knocking around for a while, try to think about your experiences with Free Uni, and how they inform what you think Free Uni should be. Try to think about what it is currently, and where you’d like it to be in the future.

There are a diverse range of political views in the group, and lots of people have lots of different ideas about who were and what we should be doing. We want contributions from all these people. The contributions will be brought together into a set of guiding principles, which we’ll present to the group in the last week of October, to be ratified, modified, or – if it’s not good enough – rejected to start over.

Below are some example contributions, already made by members.  Add your own contribution here: http://bit.ly/2dyrc6H 

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Free Education and Queer Liberation

The following is an opinion piece by Charlotte, one of our members; it is not an official statement by the Free University of Sheffield.

This talk was originally given as part of a Free Uni discussion meeting called Free Education: Why Do We Want It? Free Uni runs open discussion meetings every other Tuesday at 6:30pm, alternating with weeks where we focus on organising. Check our Facebook page for updates if you fancy coming along in future!

This discussion on free education and queer liberation can only give a small sense of the wide-reaching interconnection between the two struggles; it would be great to hear feedback from others, too. As a point of clarification, I will be using ‘queer’ as an umbrella term for members of the community as a whole; I’m aware that not everyone is comfortable with its reclamation, and if any LGBT+ reader experiences discomfort with this (or anything I say here) I would be very open to your critique.

It’s something I like to re-affirm to myself generally, as an activist, and something that’s important to start with here: the history of queerness is intensely political. We know that Stonewall started with a riot; here in Sheffield, 100 years ago, activist and writer Edward Carpenter mobilised for socialism, environmentalism and women’s liberation, directly connecting these causes to his experience as a gay man. (More on Edward Carpenter can be found at www.friendsofedwardcarpenter.co.uk).

The political nature of queerness does not diminish with the passage of time. Though much has changed in the contemporary experience of being LGBT+, major developments in queer rights are often coupled with cishet society’s attempts to depoliticise our identities and discredit our anger at the injustices we still face. The mainstream media often frames the legalisation of gay marriage as the end point in our narrative of struggle. Rainbow flags emblazoned on corporate brands tap into queer consumers as a new ‘niche market’. We are expected to beam with gratitude at the police officers dancing at pride rallies, as if the police have not consistently enacted violence against us or turned a blind eye towards queerphobic hate crime (something which happened in Sheffield only this year: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-36985098).

Our lives are political, crucially political, because the mechanisms of society continue to structurally oppress LGBT+ people. Cuts to the NHS continue to diminish trans people’s access to free medical care, whilst the medical system itself is routinely discriminatory. Despite our higher risk of suicide, healthcare cuts affect LGBT+ people’s access to crucial mental health care. The legal system continues to do violence to queer people of colour, whilst racist attempts to close our borders make it increasingly difficult for queer people to seek asylum from hate crime in the UK.

I could go on, but here is my main point: the continuing assault on higher and further education is bound up in the oppression of queer people, too. The removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, the abolition of student maintenance grants, and the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (threatening unbridled increases in tuition fees) makes it increasingly difficult for people in precarious financial situations to access further or higher education. The government’s tacit assumption that familial financial support is always around to supplement the maintenance of students and cushion their debt—an assumption favourably geared towards middle-class families—also overlooks the experience of queer people, whose identities often lead to estrangement from their families. The impact of austerity on HE/FE creates further precarity for queer people dealing with the financial pressures of transition.

Our ability to participate in the university is essential for making changes to the treatment and safety of queer people on university campuses. The increasing cuts to university budgets mean they channel money into student recruitment, often in ways that don’t benefit the students already present, or the quality of education itself. This directs time and money away from the development of safe and inclusive spaces for LGBT+ students; The Diamond, for example, is the university’s new showpiece, but only includes one gender neutral toilet.

But of course—like everything about free education activism—fees and funding are tied to wider-reaching considerations. The threat to LGBT+ participation in higher education enables educational institutions to continue to shut out queer voices, both those of students, and of staff, who must face the financially fraught and exploitative pathway to academic employment. We need syllabuses and seminars which do not erase and oppress queer contributions to, and visions of, history, medicine and science, literature and art, geography, philosophy and sociology; the list continues.

As a marginalised group, our voices must be amplified; amplification isn’t about filtering queer voices through an institutional megaphone which ultimately remains cishet in structure. It’s not about acts of performative allyship, such as fulfilling representational quotas by shoehorning a lecture on queer theory into a hetero/cis normative philosophy module. It’s about queer people leading, queer people participating, and queer people speaking for themselves. Active participation is integral to the structure of a free university, whereby students are not just passive consumers, but also co-producers of knowledge. Our community is fluid—as we gain new confidence and understanding, it grows and evolves—foregrounding and hearing our voices is essential in this process.

One of the people who attended the talk raised a brilliant question at this point: to what extent does fighting for representation and amplification in a structure which, ideally, we would overthrow and rebuild, represent settling for something, accepting a bone which the university has thrown us? I think this question is attendant on all activism: free education, queer liberation, or otherwise. I’m still mulling over this—and would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts—here are my initial ideas.

Queerness is ultimately about radical receptivity, radical community; connections between people so radical, so limitless, that they threaten the very cohesion of cishet patriarchal society. The history of queer liberation is about solidarity, forming a community so strong it can continue to fight back against centuries of oppression. At its best—when all the voices and identities it encompasses are amplified— queerness is antithetical to the atomising values of capitalism and marketization which underpin the current education system. It strikes me that a university where queer people are able to speak, where we contribute to knowledge-creation and the university’s overall operation, cannot remain structurally the same.

These thoughts sprung to mind after hearing the word ‘solidarity’ come up over and over again in the open discussion after my talk: we agreed that solidarity, the mobilisation and collective resistance of different people together, was essential for the success of the free education cause. We have to build bridges between colleges and universities; students, academics, and non-teaching staff; universities and their surrounding communities; students and workers: or our movement is exclusionary and stands for no-one. I think there are many lessons we can learn from the queer community about collective resistance and radical, all-encompassing solidarity. But the question we ended the discussion on–which I will leave open–is, although solidarity and community sound great on paper, how do we enact them meaningfully in practice?

I have attempted to show that the education system’s oppression of queer people goes much deeper than management’s decision to have staff members wear rainbow-coloured lanyards can resolve. As a community, we need to reclaim our anger, and mobilise against the way queerphobic oppression manifests in the structure of the university; a big part of this is, as my friend put it, queering the university: extending our own system, one of radical and wide-reaching solidarity.

As things begin to heat up, what should we be doing?

The following is an opinion piece by Josh Berlyne; it is not an official statement of the Free University of Sheffield.

cameron pig pinata

Just like the weather, the political climate in the UK is beginning to heat up (a little bit).  There are still brief cold spells and rainy days, but the breeze of political sentiment—certainly amongst the young—is blowing leftwards.

What’s going on?

At the beginning of March we saw a big surge in actions.  Many of these are still bubbling beneath the surface: the #DontDeportLuqman campaign is ongoing, although the occupation is over; students and staff at Birmingham are still resisting the cuts to the Modern Languages department; students at Brighton are still resisting the closure of their Hastings campus (sign the petition here); and UCL, Cut the Rent and Goldsmiths, Cut the Rent are still pushing forwards with their rent strikes.

At the University of Manchester, 43 workers are facing the sack.  The University’s subsidiary company is cutting back its spending massively, and as a result 43 out of the 60 chefs in catered accommodation are facing redundancy, while the remaining 17 will get a pay cut.  Free Education MCR, alongside the staff union Unison, are organising to resist: there will be a demo on Thursday 14th April at 12.30pm, University Place, Manchester.  Furthermore, there is a big appetite for industrial action among the rank-and-file union members.  Sign the petition here.

The #SaveBISSheffield demo on 9th April attracted hundreds of protestors.  Jobs at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills offices in Sheffield are set to be slashed as the government moves their offices to London—so much for the “Northern Powerhouse.”

Unite Young Members are launching their Fight for 5 – Decent Work For All campaign in Sheffield on 11th April at The Shakespeare.

The #CameronResign demo in London attracted thousands of demonstrators (at the same time, the demo to save the Carnegie library in south London attracted around 1,000).  As Aaron Bastani pointed out, the average age of the demo was very young—Bastani reckoned it was the youngest protest he’d seen since the 2010/11 student protests.  However romantic it is to think the reason for this is “youthful idealism”, it isn’t: our generation’s collective experience of neoliberalism is one of cutbacks, precarious work and rising living costs.  This has made us cynical and angry, not idealistic.

The Junior Doctors have their next strike dates on 26th and 27th April.  The National Union of Teachers have threatened to strike at the same time as the doctors, protesting the government’s plans to turn every school into an academy.  Furthermore, the #BursaryOrBust campaign have been encouraging nursing students to walk out alongside the doctors, to protest the cuts to NHS student bursaries.

Finally, things are really heating up around Europe, with massive protests in Iceland, France and Greece.  The ROAR Collective is predicting a “hot spring” in Europe this year.

What do we do?

Things are heating up, but we’re not about to see militant protests like the #LoiEmploi and #NuitDebout demonstrations in France.  As Joana Ramiro points out, the left needs to be more organised if it’s going to have an impact.  With that in mind, what do we need to be doing, as Free Uni activists?

Communicate.  Arguably the most important task right now is to build strong links with other groups.  The end goal is to create a strong alliance, or coalition, of groups opposing austerity, neoliberalism and (dare I say it) capitalism.  Creating this requires an infrastructure with formalised lines of communication between these groups.  It’s much more desirable to build a movement, rather than wait, hoping one will coalesce spontaneously.

The first step towards this is to build links with other student groups nationally, as well as building links with worker groups locally.  This means taking every opportunity to go to the events, rallies and protests of other groups (and in other cities) and making an active effort to talk to the organisers and exchange contact details.

The next step would be to formalise those links: this would mean having “contacts” who attend other groups’ meetings and report back.  This would allow us to…

Coordinate.  With these lines of communication set up, we need to coordinate actions with other groups.  This means demonstrations, occupations and more, carried out with multiple groups involved.  It means when one group takes action, the others can be prepared to act in solidarity: releasing statements, publicising the action, helping out with arrestee support, fundraising, and more.

When the political climate really starts to heat up, it’s our role to organise, coordinate and sustain the wave of action.

Institutional Racism, Marketization and the National Student Survey

The following is an opinion piece by Shelly Asquith; it is not an official statement of the Free University of Sheffield.

Last week, Times Higher Education reported that Black academics are being scored lower than their White peers in the National Student Survey (NSS). Those familiar with the context of institutionalised racism in higher education will not find these results surprising, and will recognise that it merely scratches the surface of the problem. As we approach peak NSS season, the article provides a welcome invitation to begin discussing the wider issues the survey perpetuates.

The NSS facilitates a passive analysis of ‘satisfaction’ and encourages the notion of student-as-consumer. It is aggressively marketed to final year undergraduates, with its results used to inform league tables: measuring the commodification of the university ‘experience’. With the outcomes of the Green Paper (or “HE Bill”) on the horizon, methods like NSS become even more useful to the market. As institutions with a 100% score attract more students, they are also more likely to raise their fees. As proponents of free education, we must be clear how we respond to such mechanisms.

Students and Students’ Unions have previously been very vocal in our criticism of NSS, but in recent years it has been deprioritised as an issue. This is partly due to the movement having to respond to a swathe of fundamental reforms: higher fees, budget cuts, as well as a focus from the Left towards pay disputes and other workers’ struggles. It is also, importantly, due to our own internalisation of the market. NUS, students’ unions and student reps are encouraged to promote and indulge in its outcomes, sometimes even being financially rewarded for doing so. Institutions sell these anonymous, bureaucratic feedback methods to us as empowering and democratic; and in the absence of a genuine, mass movement it is easy to fall for it. We have quickly forgotten that the NSS is an indirect cause of the issues we have been diverted towards, and allowed it to demobilise our resistance to them. We are, unwittingly, pushing the agenda of the Vice Chancellors who lobby for the fee rise we so fervently oppose.

Bin it, ban it, burn it: opposition to NSS in 2006.

Bin it, ban it, burn it: opposition to NSS in 2006.

UCU, the lecturers’ trade union, has long criticised NSS, describing it as ‘measuring cost effectiveness rather than the real value of educational experience.’ Instead of meaningfully questioning how transformative our time at university was, we are encouraged to question whether the £9k (or more) price tag was worth the money. We rate our product out of 5 at the end of 3 years, as if it were an app. In fact, in its promotion, the NSS even boasts that it can be filled in quickly on a smartphone.

Consumerist cat: this is not what meaningful feedback looks like.

Consumerist cat: this is not what meaningful feedback looks like.

UCU also criticise the impact this has on the workforce, creating a culture of fear and pitting students against staff. It has long been noted that university managers will point to low NSS scores as a reason to discipline and dismiss, cut back and close courses. Low satisfaction caused by management failings will be blamed on front line, low paid academics. Terrified staff have been consistently reported to have written stock answers, watched students as they fill it in, or threatened of reputational damage to a course if a score falls.

A lot of resources go in to NSS. Large sums of money are spent on encouraging students to complete it; or on making small, cosmetic changes in response to feedback. In the hope that high turnouts will boost results, institutions will go to any lengths to achieve it. Our opinions are bought, as we are offered freebies, iPads and other perks in order to get favourable feedback. Committees are formed to plan our entire NSS strategies, with budgets assigned for changes to be made in order to influence results. Have you noticed that universities will announce new library opening hours at this time of year? It’s no coincidence that it’s NSS o’clock! Departments splash out on new equipment, and so it tends to be the institution’s finances that dictate the survey results year on year: the rich, White academies come out top.

This is not to say that improvements in response to feedback is negative – far from it – but it is a cynical model standing in the way of real, democratic involvement of students in their education system. For the duration of a three or four year course, the one time management will take note of a matter is weeks before you graduate. To make us feel empowered by the process though, NSS have started to co-opt symbols of activism, using megaphones and placards in its promotion.

NSS results are in: We are the 95%!

NSS results are in: We are the 95%!

There are so many other ways we could capture student opinion and measure excellence in academia. For instance, investing in course representatives and students’ unions, or encouraging dialogue between students and staff. A move from merely ‘satisfaction’ towards assessing how supportive students found the mental health services; or how safe, included and welcomed they felt in their institution. Meaningful engagement comes from adapting to our circumstances; not adopting a one size fits all approach. The survey makes no allowance for the fact that students’ academic, assessment and access needs differ according to their learning environment. Our diverse institutions and pedagogies are being forced to standardise as NSS attempts to compare what should be celebrated as incomparable.

Long term, the strategy for overhauling NSS must be a mass opt-out. We are not currently at a point where consciousness of the critique can achieve this. To most, the NSS exists, and that’s that. To some, it has managed to actually convince that its usefulness in providing a snapshot of opinion outweighs the fundamental flaws and outcomes. There is a long way to in convincing the wider movement that the survey is 5/5 unsatisfactory and to “definitely agree” it needs overhauling. We must avoid small, localised opt-out protests. These would only result in clusters of low scores that would at best be dismissed by management as an anomaly – at worst, be used to root out staff. In the immediate term, the activist Left needs to work out a response to NSS – and proposed replacement – before it’s too late.

Understanding the soup seminars: the theory

The text of this article comes from a presentation delivered by one of our members–Josh Berlyne–to a Masters’ module in the English Literature department of the University of Sheffield, called “Theory as Potentiality – the Experience of the Possible”.  Josh would like to apologise that the last two paragraphs were written in a rush.

Since we’re discussing “potentiality” in these seminars, and I’m neither an English student, nor am I trained in continental philosophy, I thought it might be most interesting, or should I say productive, to give my perspective on the matter from an activist’s point of view.  I study History and Philosophy but, above all else, I consider myself an activist.

To properly understand the soup seminars, I think, you need to understand how the idea came to be.  Last year, I took part in a module similar to this one, called “Radical Theory”.  The form the module took was itself radical: there were no set texts, no lectures, no forced discussion.  Instead, each participant sought to analyse a social or political crisis of their own choosing, with a view to theorising (and performing) an intervention into that crisis.  Thus unlike traditional university courses, there was no “teacher”, per se.  In the traditional setting, the “teacher” assumes the role of the gatekeeper or owner of knowledge and it is the teacher’s role to impart that knowledge upon her students.  This is what Paulo Freire calls the “banking model of education”.  Students are treated as if they are receptacles ready to be filled with knowledge.  In contrast, Radical Theory set out a different model for learning which focused on the creation of knowledge, rather than the acquisition of knowledge.  Thus rather than learning from a teacher, we learnt from each other: the classroom became a meeting-ground for scholars to discuss, critique and oftentimes muddle through our ideas.  Because we came from different backgrounds, and were studying different crises, there were tensions between our ideas which opened up new avenues of thought.  However, it’s not clear to me that these new avenues of thought about our crises led to significant interventions into our crises.  The soup seminars emerged as a critique of this problem.

I’d like to take a slight detour to discuss the relationship between thought and action.  It’s a deeply problematic relationship, and one that often keeps me awake at night.  Paulo Freire discusses this relationship in depth in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  It’s really helped me to think through this problem.   Freire tells us,

“It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organised struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves.  This discovery cannot be purely intellectual, but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection: only then will it be a praxis.”

So, the oppressed must not only recognise the fact that they are oppressed, and understand the ways in which they are oppressed: they must also believe in themselves.  This is because in any given situation of oppression, the oppressors are constructed as right, the oppressed are constructed as wrong.  Only when the oppressed come to understand that they are right, morally, do we then have one of the preconditions for action.  This is why eliminating the teacher-student hierarchy is a crucial aspect of revolutionary education.  The traditional model of education teaches us to doubt ourselves.  It teaches us that we are only right when the teacher tells us we are right.  This makes us wary of taking action.  Radical Theory and the soup seminars, on the other hand, attempt to teach us to believe in ourselves, while at the same time attempting to strip naked the relations of oppression in this world.  Thus is teaches us to understand that we are right to take action, while at the same time leading us to uncover what action it is that we should take.  However, revolutionary action does not occur simply by virtue of there being an oppressed class which both believes in itself and understands the way in which it is oppressed.  Remember, Freire tells us that the oppressed must “become involved in the organised struggle for their liberation”.   Furthermore, it is an intrinsic part of a revolutionary education, since it is only through the organised struggle that we truly begin to believe in ourselves.  Only when we begin to believe in ourselves, do we begin to regain that humanity which a situation of oppression has stripped us of.  And finally, it is only through organised and reflective action that we create the possibility of overturning a situation of oppression.  It is this exact point that makes the soup seminars a critique of Radical Theory.  And before I go on, I want to make clear what I mean by critique.  I do not mean that the soup seminars are better than Radical Theory.  Rather, I see the soup seminars as an attempt to address one of the problems I saw in Radical Theory, namely the problem of trying to make organised action develop out of a university classroom.

The primary difference between the soup seminars and Radical Theory is not the soup, although I will get onto that later.  Fundamentally, the difference is that the soup seminars attempt to take the model of Radical Theory out of the university classroom, and into a social movement.  Thus we attempt to add the final piece to Freire jigsaw of revolutionary action: by embedding the participants in a political movement, we open up the possibility for the education to take place within the context of organised resistance.  This means that there can be a direct link between education and resistance.  In their essay, “Towards a Revolutionary Left”, the Facing Reality Collective argue that “the university itself can only be the embalmer of revolutionary theory and politics”.  In contrast, “a revolutionary organization can be the fighting university of the working class”.  Although I do not wholly agree with their point about the university—in fact I think it can incubate radical ideas—I think it is true that radical or revolutionary ideas and education must ultimately end up in an organised political movement.  We need to re-think political movements as spaces not only for action, but also for reflection and education.  In fact, I think many political movements already operate in this way, but often it is not formalised or immediately apparent.  You might also wonder, why can’t universities be spaces for action?  I don’t have time to address this issue in full, but I will give you this.  Currently, universities are dominated by the interests of capital.  In order to stay in existence, universities must woo big business in order to get new buildings and new facilities.  If a genuinely organised political movement were to spring out of their classrooms, the university would crush it at first sight.  Management, afraid of losing investors, become conservative even if their politics are ostensibly progressive (Craig Calhoun, director of LSE and a Marxian academic, being a case in point).  However this is, of course, up for debate.

Finally, the soup: why do we include soup?  The purpose of providing soup at our meetings is to bring care centre-stage in our activism.  It seems often to be forgotten that capitalism not only makes many of us economically poor, but it also makes us time-poor.  In order to do things in this world, we need both time and money.  By providing free soup, we save people the time of going home to cook food, and the money of having to buy food.  This means that people who otherwise could not come to our meetings—primarily people who work full-time—are now able to participate.  I’d like to end on this note: political organising has taught me that, when we think about what is possible, it is just as important to think about the small details and the not-so-obvious issues.  We’ll never build a new society if the only ones who participate in its organisation are the ones who have the most time and the most capital.

We support the student strike!


There have been calls for a student strike in the UK. Alongside the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the Young Greens and other student groups, the Free University of Sheffield is calling on Students’ Unions to make their voices heard and demand a student strike ballot from the National Union of Students (NUS).

Are you an SU officer?  Click here for information on the process for getting a strike ballot in the NUS.

The student movement needs a wide-ranging discussion about strategy.  In student activism we’re used to seeing continuing cycles of demonstrations and then occupations. We don’t shy away from these tactics.  However, by their nature occupations involve only a small group of organised activists.  It’s easy to see why a many non-politically active students now think nothing of them or worse, see them as an annoyance.  Similarly, we can’t build a mass movement by lobbying politicians.  We won’t win our demands with a change.org petition.  We need something that will get students talking and discussing issues and furthermore, something that will make university management and government sit up and listen. A student strike will need the involvement of a majority of people on campus—it’s something that can bring students together in a mass movement.

A student strike is something that is undertaken en masse and as such, it provides safety in numbers. If a majority of students decide not to attend classes, then it becomes impossible for the university to punish every student.  It is actually a very safe way for students to politically organise without the fear of being kicked off their course or disciplined. This works because universities rely on students attending classes.  Without students, a university isn’t a university.  It’s just a research centre.  When students walk out of classes, we threaten the very essence of the university and stop that part of the university—teaching—from functioning.

Most importantly, student strikes are an incredibly effective tool for forcing through change. They actually work! There are plenty of example to back this up, the most notorious being the Quebec student strike in 2012 which succeeded in halting a tuition fee rise and ousting the government of the time. While the Quebec strike lasted for almost six months, our potential student strike is likely to only be a few days long, but even a few days will still be a success if it grabs people’s attention and can be a stepping stone for larger escalations in years to come. In 1971, when Margaret Thatcher as education secretary attempted to make National Union of Students membership voluntary, a UK strike took place, forcing Thatcher to withdraw the proposal.

We must rekindle the power which the student movement once had.

If you want to join the fight for fair, accessible and free higher education, fill out our contact form and we’ll be in touch.

Soup Seminars #7 – The Free University: assessments and creativity

exam hall

Our seventh soup seminar will be at Union St, at 6.30pm on Thursday 24th September.  If we could have some help with collecting the vegetables and cooking the soup, that would be great.  Please email us at freeunisheff [at] gmail [dot] com.  As usual we’ll start cooking at 4pm.  Help would be really appreciated.  The burden of the care work should be shared, rather than letting it fall on one person’s shoulders.

In the soup seminars we come together to cook and eat food, and discuss how we can act to change society’s problems. We are creating a community of thinkers and activists to come together and work out constructive solutions to the problems we face today. (All food is vegan).

We have set out three principles of the soup seminars: (1) education must serve the needs of society, not the interests of the individual; (2) we cannot leave it up to academics or ‘experts’ to come up with ways to solve our problems – we are all experts; and (3) if we are going to change anything, we must study and act together.

See below for the email sent out to the mailing list, with information on what we discussed last week and what we’ll be discussing next week, including readings. To join our mailing list, please email us at freeunisheff [at] gmail [dot] com.

Hi everyone,

It was great to see some new faces at the soup seminar last week.  I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.  Our next soup seminar will be at Union St, at 6.30pm on Thursday 24th September.  If I could have some help with collecting the vegetables and cooking the soup, that would be great.  Either reply to this email or text me on 07584092431.  As usual we’ll start cooking at 4pm.  Help would be really appreciated.  The burden of the care work should be shared, rather than letting it fall on one person’s shoulders.

Scroll down to see what we’ll be discussing next week.

Last week we discussed the role of students and teachers in the modern university, and how these roles might be different in a “free university”.  We discussed the “student as producer” project at the University of Lincoln.  While many people felt uncomfortable at the language of “productivity”, I think we generally agreed that the aim of the project was admirable: to engage students in the research process and recognise that students can be active creators and can participate in their own learning.  This is opposed to the current model of teaching, which sees students as passive and sees teaching as less important than research.

It is worth noting here that Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Author as Producer‘ was a key text when the Student as Producer project was being developed by Mike Neary and others at the University of Lincoln.

Adam also noted how Joss Winn, in his article ‘The Co-operative University: Labour, Property and Pedagogy’, pinpointed as a central problem in the modern university the question of who owns knowledge.  In a free university, Winn suggests, there would be no strict division between “student” and “teacher” (or between student, teacher, cleaner, administrator etc.).  Anyone could be any of these things at any time.  This means people are not restricted to an official role in the university.  Furthermore, the official title of “teacher” carries with it the assumption that the teacher owns the knowledge which they pass onto students.  In a free university, there would be no official distinction between teachers and students, and therefore no one in particular would have ownership of that knowledge.  This idea forms the basis of the Social Science Centre Lincoln.  As Noelle mentioned, it is also closely tied to the ideas set out in Paulo Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which Freire sets out a model for “revolutionary education” which is based on dialogue between the teacher and student, and a recognition that the student can also teach the teacher a thing or two.

A major theme of our discussion was creativity.  We agreed that having a clear and definite “end point” and a strict route for how to get there can often inhibit creativity.  As Adam said, a big part of creativity is being able to experiment with new ideas, even if they often lead us into dead ends.  We should celebrate exploring these dead ends and making mistakes.  Louis drew a comparison with architecture, and how often buildings are seen as “finished” when their occupants move out.  Instead of exploring new uses for the buildings, the typical thing to do in this day and age is to demolish the building and put up something new in its place.

I think it would be good to continue this discussion on creativity next week, with a discussion on exams, coursework, and other types of assessment.  Think about the following questions:

– Do exams and other types of assessment in the modern university allow for creativity, or are they too restrictive?  Does a fear of failure make us scared of being creative or original?

– Do exams encourage last-minute cramming, and is last-minute cramming a bad thing?

– What might assessments look like in a “free university”?  Would there even be assessments?

– What does the growing culture of constant assessments say about our society’s attitude towards experimentation, making mistakes, and having freedom in the way we learn?

– What is the link between exams and the job market? Are exams really set up to test our abilities, or are they set up to test how hardworking we are?

I have attached the minutes of the last meeting if you want to catch up on what was discussed in more detail.


I am struggling to find short articles to read on this topic.  If you come across some articles worth sharing, please send them to our email and I’ll send them straight back out again!  However, I think there are a couple of things worth reading:

– Section II of Bertell Ollman’s ‘Why So Many Exams?

– ‘Wages for Students‘ by The Wages for Students Students

If you’re interested in reading more about this, Harry Cleaver has a reading list online for his Political Economy of Education module, with a section on grading and testing.

Hope everyone is doing well,


Soup Seminars #4 – Building an alternative (continued)

plan c without care victory is not possible

Tie-dye banner made at the Plan C creche for the Anti-Austerity demonstration, June 20th.

The Free University of Sheffield are pleased to announce our 4th soup seminar, hosted by the amazing Union St again!

We’ll be having our fourth ever soup seminar on Thursday, August 6th at 6.30pm. The cooking will start at 4pm for those who want to join in.

In the soup seminars we come together to cook and eat food, and discuss how we can act to change society’s problems. We are creating a community of thinkers and activists to come together and work out constructive solutions to the problems we face today. (All food is vegan).

Last week we discussed the importance of activists providing alternatives for oppressed groups, using Plan C and the Black Panther Party as talking points.

We discussed the alternatives that already exist in Sheffield — such as Timebuilders — and how we might support them or bring students into them. After all, we don’t want to simply replicate what’s already being done in our communities. On the basis of this, we decided that it would be good if we could begin to build a directory of alternative Sheffield services and projects which could bring students into their communities, and could help students in times of need.

A similar project is already being done by Alt Sheff. However, our idea is that this could go towards making the Free University a reality, by including all aspects of University life: housing, transport, education, study space, libraries, entertainment and so on. This way we can begin to build an infrastructure for a free university which is informal, decentralised and brings lots of people in their communities together.

We also discussed how it would be good to host skills workshops, and set up “alerts” for lectures, so members of the public can attend lectures at Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield without paying extortionate tuition fees.

This time around we will be creating a map of these alternative projects, and we will also discuss how we can continue to build on these alternatives. There will also be a short workshop on consensus decision-making. For the “Seeds for Change” briefing on consensus, click here.  You can find a PDF of the full book in our Library.

In the meantime we’ve created a blank Google Doc for people to add the projects they already know are happening, in preparation for mapping them next week. It might be good to organise them under the headings “Housing”, “Entertainment”, “Study Space”, “Education” and so on, so that we can start to see what a real Free University of Sheffield might look like! Click here for the Google Doc.

We also have some articles to read before next time, which will hopefully give some food for thought about building on our alternatives and what we might be building towards! These are:

Kate Aronoff, ‘Have Reports of the Death of Capitalism Been Greatly Exaggerated?‘; and

Jonathan Blitzer, ‘In Spain, Politics via Reddit‘.

As ever, if you want to suggest a reading for the group, just email it to us (freeunisheff[at]gmail.com) and we’ll send it straight back out.

If you want to join the mailing list, just send us an email asking to be added.

Reject the Teaching Excellence Framework! 21/7/15

Today, policy advisers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) visited the University of Sheffield to discuss the Teaching Excellence Framework with senior management and Students’ Union managers. The Free University of Sheffield thinks that the Teaching Excellence Framework should not be implemented. It will promote competition between universities, rather than cooperation. It will lead to the bullying of junior academic staff. It will lead to PhD students, who are currently paid below minimum wage, being put even more pressure to work even harder. The TEF is about placing the burden on individuals rather than making structural change. It’s a poorly thought out initiative. It must be scrapped. Below are leaflets which we have handed out to senior management and advisers from BIS.  Please copy, print and distribute these leaflets.  For a PDF version, click here. tef leaflet big

Lessons from activism #1

Here are some lessons from activism which have been sent in by some of our members.  It would be good to read these and think through them before our next soup seminar on Thursday 23rd July.  They have been made anonymous for the safety and security of our members.

The stories will be updated as more are sent in.

  • My perspective is from being around activism from a young age – my parents were both activists in London from the late sixties through to the noughties. We had meetings at our home regularly – so much so that we used to play games as kids where we would hand out agendas and take minutes, print pamphlets etc. My impression of those days is that decision making was very hierarchical – the ‘troops’ were expected to vote for things occasionally and the rest of the time follow the party line. Heavily influenced by Soviet style communism and such like. Nowadays the scene in activist circles is much more progressive, there is a genuine commitment to non-hierarchical decision making and involvement of those traditionally sidelined. It’s easy to be disheartened that the revolution isn’t happening this week – and overlook the real progress that’s been made. Now it’s standard practice to have a safe space policy, to actively seek to include all voices, to watch out for power dynamics and work to try to flatten them. It’s not the answer to everything, but it does maximise the power of the group and ensure that it doesn’t become self-serving but carries on focusing on the real issues of the members.


  • I think I had two things to say when we went round the circle. The first was about what little I’ve learnt from being involved with pragmatic mutual aid organisations. Active groups that are horizontally-organised, autonomous, and have a shared understanding of a goal they seek to work towards have been profoundly successful in allowing people to identify, parse, and articulate their own needs. If groups create spaces where individuals feel free and empowered to subsequently find ways to meet those needs, then those spaces draw others, and also retain people who seek to empower others as they themselves were empowered; this has beneficial consequences for group sustainability. There are risks in this approach: that groups may be amorphous, may be coerced by particularly charismatic figures, or may allow people to pursue needs that contradict each other. But there are benefits too: creating a notional space where people are free to seek out shared co-operative strategies for meeting needs (educational, I guess, in the context you’re talking about) that cannot be met in the choking miasma of late capitalism’s socioeconomic clusterfuck is a strategy of redemption and about reclaiming a sense of human idealism. The second thing I said when we went round the circle was the importance of challenging Capital’s lie about “it’s always been this way, and it always has to be this way”. Educational Hegemony wants you to think that its way of doing this is the only way of doing things: this is one of the many ways it seeks to brook no alternatives, to allow no space even for other ways of learning to be conceived. But in Sheffield (as is the case in several industrial cities) there is a strong heritage of working class autodidacticism, in Friendly Societies, Free Schools, Mechanics Institutes, continuing right through to the later c.20th when despite the Conservative’s best efforts to gut the Ad Ed system, there still survived the proud traditions of WEAs and Continuing Education (both within and without the walls of the academe). If you seek other ways of learning, of other means of knowledge creation and dissemination beyond the horrorshow of the contemporary neoliberal HE sweatshop, there are other traditions to draw from that expose the claim that ‘this kind of learning is the only learning there can be’ as yet another dirty great fib.