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May 4, 2011

University – free for all

What a university education should consist of, and more to the point how much it should cost has been one of the talking points of this election campaign. Almost 200 years ago, a Danish philosopher called Grundtvig, took the view that universities should be community based and open to everyone. The people’s free universities movement now numbers 400 across Nordic countries and Scotland’s first – The Govan Folk University – is about to throw open its doors

SCANDINAVIAN-STYLE free universities are set to come to Scotland with the first opening its doors in a matter of months.

The GovanFolk University in Glasgow will use volunteer lecturers and tutors to teach mainstream subjects, as well as practical skills such as woodwork and growing food.

The institution, inspired by the work of people such as NFS Grundtvig, the 19th-century Danish educator who campaigned to bring education into the community, is aimed at people who would not normally go into mainstream higher education.

The new university has written its own charter but, like its Nordic counterparts, will not award degrees.

Tam McGarvey, co-ordinator of the GalGael Trust, a community project that is spearheading the initiative, dismissed suggestions by former Conservative MSP Bill Aitken that it mirrored the concepts behind Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society.

He said: “People in communities like Govan have been helping each other for hundreds of years. If anything David Cameron has hijacked our idea.

“We’re following in the footsteps of the many forms learning has taken in tenements and halls throughout Govan and areas like it, at kitchen tables, listening to ‘old yins’ and working alongside time-served journeymen.

“It will sow seeds for the future, meaning future generations will grow up in an environment where it is normal to learn about things like ecology or art, joinery or computing.”

Mr Aitken, the Conservative Party’s former justice spokesman at the Scottish Parliament, said: “This new university sounds rather interesting and is, of course, in line with the Big Society which David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has been pushing for the last year.

“While obviously they cannot issue degrees, they can impart knowledge which is helpful to those attending and will help with employment. I wish the scheme the best of luck.”

The launch event will be the “Kandinsky in Govan” conference in October celebrating the work of Vasily Kandinsky, one of the founding fathers of abstract art, with lectures by experts including Professor Christina Lodder, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Funding for the university includes £94,000 from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund.

The other partners involved in establishing the university are the Govan-based Centre for Human Ecology, Fablevision arts project, Govan and Linthouse Parish Church and the Pearce Institute.

Education for the masses

THE people’s free universities movement, which started in Denmark, dates back to the early decades of the 19th century.

The Industrial Revolution created a demand for learning, but university learning was restricted to the wealthy.

Danish nationalist poet, philosopher and theologian Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig believed that education should be available to all according to their needs and interests.

Today there are more than 400 free universities across Nordic countries and over 150 in northern and eastern Europe.