Rivington St sign

The Antiuniversity of London - an Attempt at Deinstitutionalisation

By Jakob Jakobsen  ( Jakob Jakobsen This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

The Antiuniversity of London was a shortlived and intense experiment into self-organised education and communal living that took off at 49 Rivington Street in Shoreditch in February 1968.

In an introductory text, the American psychiatrist Dr Joseph Berke, one of its instigators, wrote:

The schools and universities are dead. They must be destroyed and rebuilt in our own terms. These sentiments reflect the growing belief of students and teachers all over Europe and the United States as they strip aside the academic pretensions from their 'institutions of higher learning' and see them for what they are - rigid training schools for the operation and expansion of reactionary government, business, and military bureaucracies.

The aim of the Antiuniversity was to open up education to a wider social reality-in contrast to the traditional university, mainly occupied with its own survival as an institution. It sought 'to develop the concepts and form of experience necessary to comprehend the events of this century and the meaning of one's life within it, to examine artistic expression beyond the scope of the usual academy and to promote a position of social integrity and commitment from which scholars now stand aloof.' No formal qualification was required and no degrees would be awarded.

Already at the opening of the Antiuniversity on February 12, 1968, there was antagonism between students, teachers and the Ad-Hoc Coordination Committee. The first problem was that the committee had made arrangements with the BBC for coverage of the Antiuniversity. Some suggested that no establishment media organisation should be trusted, and that the BBC's involvement could be a sell-out, compromising the project's revolutionary aspirations. 

Another flashpoint was the fee and payment structure. It had been proposed that there should be a fee for each course, and the course leaders should be paid. This traditional arrangement did not last long.

The catalogue for the first quarter offered 37 courses ranging from political theory and revolutionary movements to Black Power, experimental drugs and print-making. It was beautifully block-printed on high quality paper.

More than 200 people signed up as members for the first term. Most courses took place in the evenings to make it possible for both students and teachers to attend after work. Some of the advertised courses were popular and quickly became fully booked, others never actually happened.

The year at the Antiuniversity was to be divided into four quarters, each lasting eight weeks. The second catalogue included a new course, the Counter-University, that was to focus on the development of the Antiuniversity itself. A flyer, headed You and the Anti-U, stated:

These past four months have proved that an antiuniversity can survive-it can even grow. The question is in what directions? We feel it is necessary to depass our birth and commit ourselves to a new community development. Any organisation which wishes to be meaningful, not only to the world outside but more importantly, to its self, must re-examine itself at each step. To do otherwise is a symptom of death.

The three main issues on the agenda were the student-teacher relationship, decision-making powers within the organisation, and the level of communication and exchange between courses.  At the margin of the You and the Anti-U flyer small statements were written in by hand: 'Is your teacher really necessary?', 'What about an anti-antiuniversity-university?', 'Who's going to do the dirty work?' and 'Pay the students, charge the teachers!'

In April, Peter Upwood, the caretaker of the snack bar in the lounge, had moved into the Antiuniversity, and was joined by a group of friends. This meant that the institution was turning into a commune. This was not explicitly decided or approved by anybody but it helped to deinstitutionalise the university and establish new and closer connections with the material everyday life of the learning environment.
This development catalysed a weekend workshop about the practicalities and ideals of organising a commune. Most of the communes around London came to the Antiuniversity at the end of April 1968 and shared experiences and political ideas to do with communal living and the possible structuring of the 'antifamily'.

The second term started on May 6. In the new catalogue, the paper and printing quality were less delicate, but 60 courses were listed, many more than the 37 initially offered.

Around this time the Ad-Hoc Coordination Committee came under attack as a reactionary force within the institutional framework of the Antiuniversity. The committee was criticised for lack of transparency and for organising meetings in secret. The members were described as 'them'. The founding fathers were apparently trying to get the rebellious children to behave. There were some changes of personnel which ended with the declaration being made that:  'the Antiuniversity is YOURS. Instead of acting as satellites to the stars in our social universe, phase II of the Anti-U is donating event space for everybody to act as stars.'

For a while the old and the new structures ran in parallel. A third catalogue was produced, featuring the same course arrangement as in the previous two but avoiding advertising the names of the course leaders. Attending a course meant 'considering oneself as one of the givers of the course.'

This explosion of the course structure was accompanied by an explosion of the fee and pay structure. Teachers and course leaders were not just going to be unpaid, they were going to have to contribute in the same way as the students. This demonstrated the Antiuniversity's resistance to the conventional teacher-student structure, but it led to financial difficulties. People began to utilise private flats for meeting places instead of the cost-heavy building at 49 Rivington Street.

A new group in consisting mainly of people travelling through London just looking for a place to crash worsened the already tense atmosphere at Rivington Street. Life folded into learning and turned the Antiuniversity into a dosshouse. The hope of a counter-institution was already sinking and the atmosphere was bleak and besieged.

There were resignations at the top of the institutional structure and by the beginning of the third term the students were left to coordinate affairs themselves. There was no money and no desire among the students to maintain any hierarchical administrative structure.
The Antiuniversity could no longer afford the Rivington Street building and had to move out and continue as a dispersed anti-institution using people's flats and pubs as settings for its educational activities. For a while a number of courses and meetings carried on around London with advertisements placed in the International Times giving a phone number to call for further information. This lasted until the autumn of 1971. It could be said that the activities of the Antiuniversity were still going on as long as people met in self-organised ways and shared experiences, affects and knowledge, but the Antiuniversity itself was slowly being erased.
The deinstitutionalising of the Antiuniversity was a process characterised by struggle and antagonism. It was part of the broader movement of student protests in the late 1960s, in the UK and all over the world, but the fact that it was embedded in an alien capitalist environment made it impossible to save.

Jakob Jakobsen is a visual artist and organiser based in London and Copenhagen
The site antihistory.org is an ongoing archive of the Antiuniversity of London.
Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kbi_KgBA7-c

 

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