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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: 

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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

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:

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.

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.

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 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.