IF: This University Is Free by Jonny Mundey
IF is a new project, co-founded by Jonny Mundey and Barbara Gunnell, providing free humanities courses to young people priced out of today’s higher education market by using cities and networks in innovative ways. Here Jonny tells us more about the idea…
UK cities buzz with cultural activities and institutions. Around the country you can find busy galleries, concert halls and lecture rooms. We love public culture and we are good at it. Free exhibitions, free talks, free music inspire and educate hundreds and thousands of people every day. It is a part of the British identity.
Yet fair access to a higher education in subjects such as history, philosophy, the classics, music, literature is seriously under threat. There is no longer any direct teaching funding at all from the state for arts and humanities. This has all to be funded by student fees and the loans that pay for them. In combination with the current political emphasis on the future salary advantages of university degrees, and fear of debt, humanities and arts risks becoming an education only for the wealthy.
Where will that leave public culture?
The IF project is a new higher education concept born as a response to these realities. The idea like many before it, came up over coffee. What if you could use the free cultural resources of a city, plus the web and shards of donated time from academics, to create a “free university”? – what if you could draw together and amplify what is already out there into a series of introductory undergraduate-level courses for young school-leavers and workers who would otherwise be priced out of the higher education market altogether?
That is what my colleague and I have set out to do. The concept would work in any major city, but the first iteration of IF will be in London where we are based.
Using London as a giant lecture hall
The IF project will use London as a giant lecture-hall, guiding students to free events relevant to our introductory short courses in subjects such as history, philosophy, music and the visual arts. It will bring together a network of academics and thinkers to lead weekly workshops, lectures and seminars with IF students.
So far, we have forged partnerships with academic organisations such as Gresham College (which offers free lunchtime and evening lectures of the highest academic quality); recruited professors from top universities to offer free lectures; and connected with youth organisations who work with the young people who have been priced out of the current loans-based education market.
Now we need to mobilise a network of like-minded poeple around the project.
You can help us create a free university
Just over a week ago we launched a crowdfunding campaign, supported by the RSA, to raise funds for the first IF course – a four-week humanities Summer School taking in lectures and seminars from visiting professors and lecturers. History lectures at Gresham College, visual arts experiences via the V&A’s standing collections and discussions around free concerts at The Festival Hall. We will use the Summer School to test out the logistics of IF and seek feedback and advice from our first students on how to expand the idea into something much bigger.
In only a few days we’ve raised almost £3000 and received donations of time from thinkers, academics, artists and authors. We know that there is a huge network of people in all walks of life who believe that a humanities education is worth having and should be available to all. If with your help we can reach and mobilise even a tiny percentage of these people to give a tenner to IF and spread the word, we can make this happen. We are hugely grateful for all donations and any help in spreading the word.
Education as a public good: an idea that’s bigger than IF
It is important to note that IF is not alone. We share and support the ethos of higher education as a public good that’s demonstrated by organisations such as the Ragged University. And since the early days of the IF project we’ve been inspired by the thriving community of UK “free university” projects. In turn, if we succeed in London, we hope others will copy the IF model across the world.
Principles: This University Is Free
Nonetheless it is worth nailing our colours to the mast here. The core principles that have driven IF from day one are that an education in the humanities is an education that should be available to all (not just a luxury for the sons and daughters of the wealthy) and that it is an education worth having, with the capacity to enrich young people’s lives and to benefit society as a whole.
We believe that studying the humanities is the means by which people get to think about and discuss the big ideas of the day, cultivate the ability to think critically, and learn to empathise with experiences of life that are radically different to their own. We think these capacities are vital for individuals and societies navigating the complex realities of an increasingly interdependent world. And we think to take this learning experience off the menu for young people is a huge mistake. If you agree, here’s what we’re asking…
Want to get involved?
Please visit and share our crowdfunding campaign.
We’d also love to hear from anyone interested in being involved in the IF project. To expand we need to connect with volunteer academics who can provide, say, one lecture a year. We need to connect with academics and thinkers and post-graduate students who love their subjects and want to talk to and enthuse new students about what they are doing in seminar sessions. We’d love to hear from cultural organisations – you are the inspiration and foundation for our model of city-based learning, we want to form close links, engage with and amplify your work.