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IT’S 6.30 on a crisp Tuesday night, and more than 40 people are squeezed into a makeshift lecture room in the back of a Clifton Hill bar.
This eclectic group – grey-haired women of a certain age sit alongside thirty-something students clutching bike helmets – is here for the fifth lecture in a seven-week course entitled ”Progressive Politics – what’s left?”.
Tonight the rival ”progressive” credentials of the Greens and Labor will be discussed by a panel featuring La Trobe university research fellow Russell Marks, La Trobe’s Professor Dennis Altman, Labor figure Cath Bowtell and Dr Alison Parkes, the Greens candidate for lord mayor of Melbourne.
Within minutes, the discussion is zinging from asylum seekers to economic growth, gay marriage and on to the realpolitik of getting progressive policies implemented and the essential issue of state versus federal powers.
When Professor Altman asks if the fight for the right to ”walk down the aisle in matching white tuxedos” might be a distraction from more dangerous sexual inequality issues such as the rape of lesbians in South Africa, hands go up all over the room. One woman raises the issue of the mental health of gay teenagers in secondary school. A young man wants to ask where the ”progressivism” is in marriage.
Then another hand goes up. At least the gay marriage issue gets young people out to rallies, the questioner suggests. Doesn’t that make it a pathway into political activism?
Welcome to Melbourne’s newest and most unorthodox tertiary institution: the Melbourne Free University.
It has no fees, no enrolments, no essays, no assessments, and no permanent premises. What it offers, its organisers promise, is the opportunity to pursue ”knowledge for its own sake” in an environment where everybody can ask questions.
MFU teachers are a mix of academics and people with practical experience in a subject. Its two current ”campuses” are bars: Clifton Hills’ Some Velvet Morning on Tuesdays and East Brunswick’s The Alderman on Thursdays.
Its cohort, usually an inner-city mix of university students, retirees and those in between, aren’t even asked to register. So speakers never know until the last minute whether they’ll be facing an audience of 10 or 50.
The audience for tonight’s progressive politics session includes Andrew Gilbert, 30, of Bundoora, a sociology PhD at La Trobe who first went to one of the MFU seminars held in the city square last summer in collaboration with the Occupy Melbourne movement, and Amor Connors, 32, of South Yarra, a psychology graduate who used to work in the public service and wants to make a career change into graphic design.
She was attracted to the free university by the design of its website and its social media presence.
"I’ve been out of university for 10 years now and I just like listening to other people’s views and experiences on topics outside what I studied,” she says. ”I like the intimate setting, the fact that you can contribute – and it’s an open and welcoming environment."
The idea of Melbourne’s free university was born in 2009 during an after-work drinks session shared by three young sessional university teachers: Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, a PhD student at La Trobe University, Gerhard Hoffstaedter, now a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Queensland, and Aurelien Mondon, now a lecturer in French studies at the University of Bath.
The trio sympathised with students who saw themselves as victims of a system of "outcome-oriented education" in which the choice of subjects to study was narrowing each year.
They were frustrated with the way students saw each subject as ”three pieces of assessment” and not as a real opportunity to engage with ideas.
When Dr Mondon mentioned the free university at Lyon, the three young academics wondered whether Melbourne could support a similar institution.
They were, they believed, part of a system dominated by ”who can afford to go, who can afford to pay”. But could they possibly create an alternative?
"The Eureka moment for us was that we thought that this was something that could really work," says Ms Westendorf, 27, now convener of the MFU’s eight-member organising team and still working as a sessional teacher while she completes her PhD on why peace processes fail in civil wars.
"We could have a place to talk about ideas and bring in people from universities who are often frustrated with the type of teaching they are doing – and who want to bring their knowledge into a space where people are excited about listening to it."
Months of planning followed. The trio’s initial vision had been of an idealistic learning space that would welcome workers, housing commission high-rise residents and refugees, none of whom have easy access to mainstream universities. That led to further debate about the location for the new free university.
"One of the ideas [that came up] was 'Why are you doing this in inner-city Melbourne, you should be doing this in Frankston?'," says Ms Westendorf. "But we decided early on that we are not about outreach and that this was going to be about the community we know."
After a limited pre-launch publicity campaign that relied on word-of-mouth, Facebook, and a mail-out to radio stations, the free university opened on May 1, 2010, with two panel sessions: one on "Australia’s role in the world", the another on "universalisms and particularisms".
The venue was the Carlton Neighbourhood house, chosen because it was close to the commission flats. Only eight people turned up – most of them Ms Westendorf’s family and friends.
"It was heartbreaking," she says. "But it was a good discussion and even though we knew everyone there, we felt like it was a space for a conversation that you don’t get over dinner table or in the pub with your mates."
It was also a big lesson about the importance of advertising.
By early 2011, the organising team included a webmaster, a PR co-ordinator, an outreach co-ordinator, an administration assistant and a graphic designer, all volunteers.
With regular mentions on radio and in local papers, the audience started to build.
The typical MFU format became a six-week course held together by a theme such as "refugee realities" or "I (heart) philosophy". By the middle of last year, classes were being held in bars, so people could have a glass of wine and feel free just to stand up the back and watch.
Requests started coming in from interested parties in Sydney, Perth and Bellingen, seeking advice on setting up their own free universities, and prompting the team to write its own ”how to start a free university” guide and post it online.
Now, two-and-a-half years since in its launch, MFU has run more than 46 courses and seminars, most of which have been recorded and can be downloaded.
Politically themed courses remain the most popular, with courses on sharia or the Middle East regularly attracting more than 50 participants. But a course on myth, taught by retired academic Dr Stephen Knight, and a linguistics course, have also drawn close to 40 participants a time.
According to Ms Westendorf, the free university’s success, combined with continuing redundancies in universities, means that academics are now volunteering their teaching services.
For working academics, MFU teaching offers an attractive experience rarely available in their day jobs.
University of Melbourne Professor Verity Burgmann, who took part in an MFU seminar in May on the "occupy movement," points to the refreshing pleasure of speaking to people who are attending because they want to, and not just because they feel obliged.
"The absence of assessment also mitigates the inequality of the relationship between speaker and audience," she says.
"The authority of the speaker depends on knowledge alone, not power to assess … I also particularly valued the presence of older people in the audience … such people have become an endangered species at universities since the introduction of fees."
Author: Liz Porter of The Age