Crowdfunding free education

IF is a new project, co-founded by Barbara Gunnell and Jonny Mundey, which offers free humanities courses to young people priced out of today’s higher education market by using London’s cultural resources in innovative ways.

Here Jonny tells us more about the idea…

As I write from one of the many cafes at the Tate Modern, people stream past me to the galleries. Whether chatting excitably to friends or submerged deep in Sunday afternoon reverie people are here to be inspired and challenged by the art on display.

Maybe they’ll learn something too.

Across London, the atmosphere of quiet excitement is replicated at the Whitechapel Gallery, The ICA, The V&A. Elsewhere, throughout the week people are finding a free lunchtime concert to take them away from the mundane for an hour. Somewhere, someone is transfixed by a lecture or debate, part of a festival of ideas. The city is alive with culture.

Zoom out from the city to look at UK culture from a broader perspective and you might pick up on a different story. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that there is a quiet crisis brewing in higher education that will have knock-on effects for society at large. There is no direct teaching funding from the state for arts and humanities at all. It is all funded by student fees. In combination with the current political emphasis on the future salary advantages of university degrees, and fear of debt, humanities and arts subjects risk becoming an education only for the wealthy.

The IF project is a new higher education concept born as a response to these realities. 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 what’s already out there into a series of undergraduate-level courses for young school-leavers and workers who would otherwise be priced out of the higher education market altogether?

That’s what myself and my colleague Barbara Gunnell have set out to do.

The IF Idea: This University is Free

The principle that has driven the project from day one is that an education in the humanities is an education that should be available to all – and not just a luxury for the sons and daughters of the wealthy. Further; it’s an education worth having, one which has the capacity to enrich young people’s lives and 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 critical thinking, 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 vs MOOCs: using London as a giant lecture hall

There is clearly a demand for free self-driven learning: mass open online courses (MOOCS) have been expanding at a furious rate. Unfortunately, a lot of students abandon on-line learning. What they are probably missing is the college-type experience of debating and learning with and from fellow students; the fun and excitement of studying.

The IF project uses 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 also brings together a network of academics and thinkers to lead weekly workshops, lectures and seminars with IF students. So far, we’ve forged relationships 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.

You can help us create a free university

In May we are running our first course – a four-week humanities Summer School taking in history lectures at the 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.

A week ago we launched a crowdfunding campaign, supported by the RSA, to raise funds for the IF Summer School. 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 mobilise even a tiny percentage of those 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.

Want to get involved?

We would 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 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 want to hear from organisations who can donate space for seminars and lectures. We want to form close links with cultural institutions sharing our aims. Please click to drop us a line.

It’s crucial to note that we’re not alone. We’ve been inspired by the community of UK “free university” projects along the way. If we succeed in London, we hope others will copy the IF model across the world.

What would that be like?


IFIF is an innovative project offering free humanities courses to young people priced out of today’s higher education market.

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