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The Free University: A people’s history

A radical experiment in education, and its legacy half a century later

Free University in at the Old Mase, Paddington. Raewyn Connell’s archives.

In 1967, three students and two young members of the History department met on the Quadrangle lawns to talk about the state of Australian education. The manifesto they later published in Honi Soit is a rare kind of document that only becomes truer over time. “The Lost Ideal” argues that “training for the economy is the de facto centre of the university’s operations,” that students enter university following a “prolonged training in forced-feed learning techniques” in school and are put through “a pre-structured processing” led by staff that are experts in their field but “rank amateurs at the specialised and difficult tasks of tertiary education.”

Because of this, the authors argue, only “probably one in a hundred people who pass through the university get a university education in the proper sense of the term.” The words ring true in a world where the Government is attempting to cut university funding and hike fees for Arts degrees on the premise it will promote “job-ready graduates.” The authors are cynical about the ability to provide such an education within the existing framework of the University, writing that when students make an ideological stand they “are tolerated until they try to do something about that stand.” In a particularly painful reminder that the forces restraining student dissent are by no means new, it notes that the recent uses of force by police at Sydney University are meant to keep student radicals in line.

The manifesto proposed a radically new type of education, a “Free University” (or “Free U” as it came to be known). “It is free in spirit, not in cash–it will get no government grants, no scholarship scheme,” it says. “It grants no degrees and offers no status. It is a small group of students and teachers who come together outside the established university system because they find that system inadequate.” It promised to break down the hierarchies between students and teachers, to open access to subjects like materialism, gender or race that were ignored or underfunded in universities, and to allow cross-collaboration of many working in different areas.

Some of the authors will be familiar to students. Amongst them is Raewyn Connell, perhaps Australia’s most pre-eminent sociologist, whose work on masculinity has taken her to Harvard. Her most recent book, The Good University, has assumed a position of particular prominence for student activists and unionists, as accessible literature about what a university built on democratic principles might look like remains sparse. In it, she canvasses a number of radical experiments in education, noting briefly the Free U she helped found in her early twenties.

Others include Bob Scribner, who was completing his history PhD at the time and would go on to become an esteemed historian of Central Europe and a lecturer at Harvard. In the years following the end of the Free U he travelled to East Germany, where he was one of only two historians from capitalist countries studying the Protestant Reformation in the country. There, he drove from city to city in a camper van stuffed with books, letters, and bags of Sainsbury’s Red Label tea, according to an obituary published in Central European History after his death in 1998.

Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, who met in a Government class Irving was tutoring, went on to become prominent historians of Australian labour movements. They became life-long collaborators, in 2010 co-authoring a history of radicals in Sydney — Radical Sydney. Cahill had been conscripted into the Vietnam War soon after coming to University, and organising opposition to the war and working on his own conscientious objector case soon consumed his time at university. “I sometimes think of it as a lost youth,” he says. “I didn’t come to uni to be a radical, I came to write poetry. I’m a bona fide enemy of the state now, there’s an ASIO file on me. Conscription changed my life.”

Irving says that the Free U emerged during a period of “pessimism” amongst the Left at Sydney University. It is easy now to romanticise the decade as a Golden Age for activism in Australia, looking at photographs of tens of thousands at the Vietnam War Moratorium. “When I hear about the 1960s now, I don’t recognise it, and I was there!” Cahill laughs. “The anti-war movement was very unpopular in 1964, opposition was small. From a student perspective it was frustrating in many ways. You can’t forget how much work it took to get there in 1968.”

At the time the Free U was formed, the conservative Menzies government had been recently returned to power where many had campaigned for Labor, and the University had been successful in expelling a student who had been lobbying against rises to library fees. “We began thinking that we might need a better idea on what we were on about,” he says.

Universities in Australia were increasingly under strain. A generation of Baby Boomers entering Universities and increased access for women to tertiary education had outstripped class capacity. Cahill describes packed out lecture theatres for first year Arts subjects, with students being forced to sit on the stairs and in stand doorways to hear their professors. Students studying curricula written in the 1930s and 40s were calling for more democratic forms of assessment such as the now-much derided group project, Irving says, but it was difficult to implement within largely conservative faculties.

Free U was also largely inspired by similar experiments in the US happening at the time. Cahill and Irving had shared a class on American society and culture, which touched on the new radicals. “Students there had begun radicalisation programmes that took education into the ghettos, and we were inspired in that sense of a model of education based on reaching out to the local community,” Irving says. “It was in studying them that we found out about the Free Universities.”

It’s difficult to reconstruct an image of what a “regular” day at the Free University might have looked like, half a century later. Classes ranged from “the Brain” to “Atrocities Explained.” A copy of a newsletter published by the Free U, held in the University’s archives, provides summaries on seminars held by Charles Perkins on “Poverty Amongst Aborigines,” historian Baiba Berzins on the “Political Effects of Poverty” and Ted Noffs of the Wayside Chapel on “Community Organisation.” For students of the time, Free U was one of several simultaneous student-led radical movements. When I email Professor Duncan Chappell, who is in now an adjunct professor in the Law School and is listed as giving a seminar on “Mental Illness, Crime and Disease” in the newsletter, he tells me that though he remembers 1968 being  a “year of great ferment in Australia at large, and in universities in particular” his “memory bank is completely bare” about the Free U. 

It became a meeting point of people involved in various different campaigns. The Free U facilitated a “a friendly relationship of different campaigns observing each other,” Irving says. “Several people involved in the Free U were involved in the Aboriginal Freedom Rides, the Labor Party or feminist groups.” Cahill remembers it fondly. “It was like the orgasmic dream of a tutorial for everyone who’s ever taught one. It was a free flowing discussion of academics — great world academics — students and future great academics, sitting on the floor engaging with one another.”

Free University in Calder Road, Redfern. Left to right: Rowan Cahill, Terry Irving, Corina Clarke and Jon Collings. Terry Irving’s archives.

Connell and Irving taught a course on class in Australia which turned into a research project, which in turn produced a data-gathering exercise that became a paper published in a journal at the time. That in turn led to Irving and Connell’s long-term project Class Structure in Australian History that has led to several published books. The course had a “huge effect on my intellectual development,” Irving says.

Everyone I spoke to describes the Free U as a place where people were constantly coming and going, some choosing to live at the house itself. “In the best New Left style, we made decisions by talking until some kind of consensus emerged,” Connell says. Membership peaked in the 1968/9 summer, with Cahill estimating some 300 people were involved.

“In the second summer we got ambitious and rented two larger buildings, one in Chippendale and one in Paddington, and some folk moved in for the summer and slept there, as well as keeping the place open for courses,” Connell says. “It could be noisy, it could be quiet. People might make music, sit around talking, do some organising for instance for anti-war demonstrations. There was housework of course, some attempt was made to have people do that on rotation as part of the self-help ethos. There were parties, and I forget who had to clean up afterwards but the idea was that everyone committed to the place would pitch in.”

The vision of the Free University stayed with its founders. “I’ve been an educator all my life, I’ve worked in the technical education system. I’ve worked in schools, prisons and universities,” Cahill says. “I value education, I value teaching. It’s meant to involve people in a mutual way to recognise we all bring different understandings, not everyone is going to be a fucking Einstein. That’s the vision we had in that opening manifesto.” 

“But universities have never been comfortable with that. The move to online classes, to lock people up. What COVID has done is given universities what they’ve always wanted, break down a degree to it’s parts, break people up. I taught an online course recently, and it’ll be my last teaching gig. It’s entirely contrary to what education should be, and what the Free U tried to be.”

Connell talks about several courses that had a long-term impact on her work, describing how a course on Gödel’s Theorem sparked an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at reading Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica and a more successful attempt at reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, “which had the advantage of being shorter.”

 “But the most important thing I got from Free U wasn’t from a particular course,” she says. “It was the overall idea of the place, and the practical experience that we could actually make it happen. That became for me a key idea: that it wasn’t enough to do social criticism – which we did, and were even good at, but it was too easy. The hard thing was to weave ideas and practices together and build something new. Ever since, I’ve thought that the key thing the Left had to do was to create new social forms and make them work.”

 It’s unclear exactly when the Free U ended, as most of the founders left a year or two after its formation. Irving tells me that for several years he would meet different people saying that the Free U was operating out of this or that house in Sydney’s Inner West. But the key problem was that it eventually became impossible to afford a house for the Free U.

Raewyn Connell (left), Terry Irving (second from left) and two students at the Free U in Calder Road, Redfern. Terry Irving’s archives.

 “It was always hand-to-mouth financially, we asked people to chip in $10 [equivalent to about $125 in 2020] to be a member but a lot didn’t have it or didn’t make it a priority,” Connell says. In a story that will be familiar to any activist, there was also no long-term planning that would have been able to keep it going for long.

But, “more generally,” she says, “there was not much concern about permanence.” People didn’t “lament” the closure of the Free U because “many of us were already busy doing similar things in other forums” at the time. “People who had put energy into it found other political projects taking up more time: the Moratorium movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, Gay Liberation, the Labor Party which in 1969 seemed on the brink of winning power and in 1972 finally did.”

 “Perhaps we naively assumed that the cultural ferment of the late sixties would just keep going,” she says. “Looking back, however, I think something was lost, and that was the interplay between all the different projects and courses. For a while it had produced some synergy.”

But the vision of Free University didn’t die, even if nothing similarly ambitious has been created by Australian students since. In 1973, two graduate students, Jean Curthoys and Liz Jacka proposed a course on “The politics of sexual oppression” in the Philosophy Department. Despite it being approved by the Department, it was ultimately rejected by the Professorial Board. Feminists protested the decision by pitching a tent on the Quadrangle Lawns emblazoned “Women’s Embassy,” teaching free classes on feminist philosophy until the University — with some pressure from the Builders and Labourers Federation — allowed the course to proceed.

In 2016, young activists set up a stall on Eastern Avenue to conduct a free “Radical Education Week,” an event which has continued (with a pause in 2017) ever since. In 2019, Raewyn Connell returned to her alma mater to give a class on “the Good University” as part of the Radical Education Week program. 

Half a century after the publication of the Lost Ideal, the barriers to a truly democratic education remain much the same. If it is disheartening to think that we are further from the vision presented by the Free U than ever, we must remember that it is always in our reach. 

It is always only us who can create it.