UniVerse: Free school at Wollongong

It’s lunchtime on a Wednesday at the University of Wollongong (UOW) and students are filing into a dull, carpeted room. Another tutorial begins de rigour, except not exactly. As one student, Erin Prior, describes, “You can sense the passion in the air, you can almost hear peoples’ brains processing the ideas being discussed, and it’s amazingly, ridiculously engaging. It is learning without obligation.”

Wednesday’s lesson is not the usual tutorial, in fact, it’s not one at all. It’s not even a lecture, or a workshop, or seminar, or any other teaching format that universities are promoting to disguise thinning staff numbers, bulging class sizes, and steady disenfranchisement.  It’s a protest – all these students are learning from qualified academics and they ain’t paying a buck.

Welcome to UOW’s Free School for the Desperate, an educational collective of students and staff who meet weekly to learn in protest against UOW’s dissolution of Gender Studies course. The Free School was conceived by UOW’s FemSoc at the beginning of this year when a handful of its members suddenly found themselves without a major. Incredulous that the University was forced to axe seven of its humanities majors due to “lack of student interest”, and “cost efficiency”, the society approached the academic staff, PhD, and Honours students to reinstate the Gender Studies course, only this time voluntarily.

The school has already successfully  run a semester’s worth of lectures, spanning topics such as “The Victimhood of Sexual Assault” and “Trans 101”; each lecture attracting 20-30 students at a time. Staff collaboration also led to the creation of the Free School’s own autonomous Feminist Research Network – still with no word from the University’s administration.

Welcome to UOW’s Free School for the Desperate, an educational collective of students and staff who meet weekly to learn in protest against UOW’s dissolution of Gender Studies course.

School President and self-described desperado Jane Aubourg says the University’s response is no longer the Free School’s highest priority.

“Initially, we wanted to show the University’s administration that there definitely is student interest, as well as a societal need for the study of gender. But now we know that even if the major was reinstated students wouldn’t stop coming to our workshops and academics wouldn’t stop giving talks – simply because the Free School covers areas of feminism the University of Wollongong would simply never offer.”

Sydney University’s own administrative turbulence has given rise to proposals for a second Free School, similarly born out of protest. SRC Education Officer, Tenaya Alattas held a meeting last Monday to discuss the feasibility of a free educational service offered on campus, challenging what she calls the University’s “complete commodification of knowledge”.

Alattas says the main attention of the proposed school would not be the curriculum itself but the radical engagement such a body could facilitate. “It would aim to extend diversity within the confines of the University. We would create a safe-space that enables cross engagement between people which breaks down societal borders, whether that be relations between teachers and students, or the involvement of people who have never felt University was a space they could belong,” she tells me.

Alattas says the organisational body of the proposed ‘Rebel School’ will be welcoming to anybody “willing to lend a hand and get involved.” Apparently, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy, Frank Stilwell, has already expressed his interest.