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  • Writer's pictureMark Barnett

Free University London: Study in SE15

By Mark Barnett

Education offers us the opportunity to broaden our horizons, build our character and gain expertise, so it is a shame that nowadays the cost of education is beyond the reach of a lot of people. You may have wondered what it would be like to receive a university-level education but were put off by the thought of being saddled with debt for many years. That may not be the case anymore as there is now an opportunity to study for free in SE15.

Origins of Free University London (FUL)

Based on an idea which was first pioneered in Brighton five years ago, which has grown to 200 students there, Free University London (FUL) offers the chance to learn from tutors who are qualified up to PhD level or higher, who are volunteering their time to share their knowledge with the local community. As the name suggests the cost is totally free to the students.


Based in DIY Space for London, which is situated near Millwall’s football ground, the idea was to be local so students don’t have to travel far for classes and make it accessible. The location allows FUL to be in the community and to do things for the community. “Anybody can apply, at any time, and there are no entry requirements” says Malcolm Macqueen, a founding tutor at FUL. “We are particularly interested in working with people who have not had any experience of higher education before. All of our courses are taught at an entry level”.

Next Term

From next term some of the courses on offer include: Poetry in an Emergency, which looks at how poetry and art responds to crisis whether it be climate change, social upheaval or political crisis.

Foundations of Modern Thought, which looks at how history, society and politics have been thought about over the centuries.

Taking our Time: Critical Theories of Temporality, looks at how ideas of time have changed over time.

Why do we Work? looks at the role work plays in our lives and society.

Courses last from 5-8 weeks and while they may not lead to formal qualifications, as we know them, the classes at FUL have several advantages. “[Traditional universities] have to teach according to a pre-approved government plan which we feel they are quite restricted in.” says founding tutor Dr Elizabeth Vasileva, “and with the tuition fees they become really exclusive spaces that prevent actual thinking and learning.”


FUL are assess to a university criteria and are set in collaboration between tutor and student, according to the latter’s strengths and abilities. If a student prefers talking then they can do an oral assignment. If they prefer writing, they can do a written assignment. If performance is their thing they can do a live or recorded performance. Anything is considered so long as they can demonstrate they have engaged with the key ideas of the course.

We want to give people more confidence in being able to understand complex issues and to be able to think critically about the world.

Dr Elizabeth Vasileva

Alex Bishop

Alex Bishop is a student, who travels from Camden Town to study at FUL. He has already completed the What is Education? course and is currently undertaking Reconstructing the City, which is about psychogeography. When asked what drew him to the subject Alex says: “I have literally never heard of [psychogeography] but it sounds fascinating. It’s how people relate to places and spaces but it’s very different to what I’d been used to before [as] it’s not what you would consider a traditional academic subject, or at least not traditional in my experience.” The appeal for Alex, in studying at FUL, is that it is about discussion, the exchange of ideas, meeting different people from different backgrounds, hearing their perspectives and learning about new subjects. “It’s not like a formal university, where you’re assigned work and if you don’t write an essay in time you get into trouble, or anything like that.”

Growing Fast

If the Brighton example is anything to go by then FUL could be a force for change in south-east London. As the Free University of Brighton has grown in size more employers there have recognised it as a legitimate place to learn. Students there are able to convince employers that they are the right candidate for the job as they have studied a subject for years and can demonstrate they have an understanding of their area of study.

FUL’s potential for growth is immense - they have more tutors, who are willing to give up their time to share their knowledge, than students at present. It is hoped that in time FUL will become student-led to the extent that if someone has a burning desire to learn something in particular FUL can make that happen by supplying the appropriate lecturer.

FUL is representative of the aspirations of the local community and may even turn into a hub where people can discuss and take something from the classes that has an effect on how they conduct themselves outside and be somewhere that’s organically linked to the local community.” Everyone involved with FUL hopes that the idea can be replicated across London and beyond. Proving that free and accessible education is a viable option for anyone, anywhere.


Onur Acaroglu - founding tutor


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