Monday, 24 May 2010

The emergence of participatory knowledge: The Free U

The Free University near the University of Sydney, known as the Free U, aimed to free knowledge from the university hierarchy that guarded it jealously, and make it the possession of any who wished to inquire. Sydney’s Free U started in 1968 with 150 students and at its peak had approximately 300 participants, of which around 20 were University of Sydney staff.  The Free University movement was international, and Sydney’s participants drew on the previous experience of others in establishing it.  The Free U’s formation was heralded in Honi Soit in 1967 with invitations to students and staff to participate in its planning.  This was a participatory approach – where staff and students were ostensibly equal, where course content was not fixed, course leaders were “convenors”, not lecturers and there was no assessment. It thus sought to challenge professorial authority with alternative pedagogy, expressing some the key knowledge utopias of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Free U was a response to failures by what Terry Irving described as the “mass university”.  The mass university’s hierarchical pedagogies inhibited a “true” community of scholars. The neglect of new academic material that focused on the “real” issues of society or the “real” issues that students faced in their daily lives would emerge, they believed, in a more participatory environment.  The mass university was complicit in the goals of the “establishment”: 
Just as the university serves the nation, so the “good” teacher serves the university by instructing his students efficiently in those skills whose acquisition the nation has already made a condition of his entry to the university. Some departments and some teachers resist this atmosphere; others accept it, or encourage it by continually complicating the lives of staff and students with regulations and forms.
The mass university, Free U founders claimed, contributed to a culture that valued the seniority of the lecturer over the student, positioning the lecturer as the “knower” and the student as “doesn’t know”.  As well as perpetuating the incestuous self-legitimising knowledge of the professoriate, the disadvantage of this pedagogy for teachers, said Free U leader, Bob Connell, was that teachers only ever taught what they already knew, missing a learning opportunity themselves.  Traditional hierarchies and disciplinary boundaries designed to protect existing knowledge, inhibited the production of new knowledge. Admission to a mass university was based on decisions by administrators, not the teachers who, in a Free University, would select students for admission themselves and “teach who they want”.

The Free U was set up in a house in Chippendale, a short walk from the Sydney campus.  It assumed that students were active in the discovery process and that they produced ideas from which their teachers could also learn. Functionally, the Free U positioned learning in an immersive, experiential community that blurred the boundaries between theory and practice, thought and emotion, student and teacher (and teacher and professional practitioner), known and not known:
When you walk in the front door of the Free U, you leave outside the formal distinction between students and teachers … The group studies what the people in it decide they want to study… The way they tackle it is decided by themselves on the spot: not by someone else beforehand. The “course” is what the people in the course group make of themselves.
Founders of the Free U invoked the concept of “community of scholars” to promote a romantic notion of a renewed university, containing as it did a strong desire for authenticity, individuality and spontaneity. The Free U also repositioned the student to the centre of teaching and learning, redistributing knowledge to participants who held “a strong sense that knowledge was for sharing”.  In so doing, the Free U problematised knowledge as foundational and objective, with independent thought only possible after the foundation is acquired through careful discipline and examination. By positioning students and professionals as potential teachers it gave legitimacy to knowledge constructed as reflections on current affairs, social and professional practice. It challenged the idea that such knowledge should be the possession of professors and experts .  The Free University aimed to free knowledge from the disciplines and from the guardianship of its traditional owners. By enacting knowledge utopias, the Free U staked its own claim to the ownership of knowledge, but also showed that it could be produced and possessed by anyone.

The Free U was heavily reliant on its proximity to Sydney University.  It is noteworthy that – unlike the “Learning Exchange” students attempted in Canberra  and the Open University model, which was a topic under discussion throughout higher education  and was successfully launched in the UK in 1969  – admission to the Free U seems to have largely assumed existing university participation, creating a “community” that was really a Sydney University clique.  Its admission policy was also attached to the criterion by which a course could be offered, one of the first instances, perhaps, where student demand explicitly determined academic curriculum:
Anyone can run a course, provided he [sic] can get students
No one thought of this as market demand, rather “reform from below”.  But it nevertheless created a language that could later be appropriated to give moral force to application of market forces to university knowledge.

Terry Irving’s 1971 chapter in Counterpoints suggests that Free U founders had initially seen the Free University as an instrument of reform. Their vision narrowed after a couple of years. They came to accept themselves as just a “unique academic community”:
The Free University…is not an academy for instruction in doctrinal truth…and it is not the answer to the mass university…we now think of ourselves more as a conscience than a catalyst for the mass university.
The Free U closed in 1972 and its participants saw it as a temporary expression of important ideas rather than the cause of an educational revolution. Despite the brevity of the Free U’s existence, similar pedagogies had more permanent expression through organizations like the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), which was established in 1972 and encouraged socially situated, student-centred approaches through professional development for university teachers. 

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