Lygon Street, Carlton, 5pm

For generation Y, free education died before we were even born. Our parents watched Whitlam get kicked out in the 70s and by the time we were watching Agro’s Cartoon Connection, HECS was here to stay.

We are a useful lot. We are accountants, lawyers, builders, chefs, hairdressers, iphone lovers and commerce degree holders. We have little interest in pursuits that have no career-orientated outcome or ‘tangible’ value.

This week, however, I stumbled upon a generation rebel – Jasmine-Kim Westendorf.

Jasmine is a 25-year-old PhD candidate at Latrobe University who, along with colleagues Gerhard Hoffstaedter and Aurelien Mondon, has started Australia’s only free university.

The Melbourne Free University was founded on their belief in learning for pleasure. How novel. There is no need to enrol or worry about your marks; the classes are drop-in and cover subjects as wide-ranging as philosophy to permaculture, so there is something for everyone.

Jasmine believes strongly in ideals. When she isn’t starting universities, she is busy working on gender equality through her site, The Democracy Project. I found her drinking tea in Carlton and asked her to infuse some idealism into our afternoon.

The Melbourne Free University

We started the project because we felt disenchanted with the existing university education system. In Australia, it is the third largest industry and it’s become so outcome oriented.

It’s about getting people out, the essays, the marking and getting the degree, far more than it is about fostering analytical capacity and creative thought.

Universities have a really important role to play in our society, but we have created another forum where people who are, or are not, at universities can engage with ideas they are interested in.

It’s only by discussing and learning off each other that we can ever improve as a society and move forward.

Each session we have an expert who knows a lot about the topic to give a presentation and provide a framework for the discussion. It is a learning environment, but it’s not an environment where you have the lecturer and then the student.

We are trying to put our events in non-threatening and accessible contexts. Our venue is a neighbourhood house, so we are trying to tap into a space where people are comfortable. Also, we try to use everyday language, so we actually talk like you talk with someone in a pub.

Because we are completely free, we are trying to remove the financial barrier, we are saying anyone can come. You don’t need a background in education, all you need is the motivation to come and participate. Everyone has something equally valuable to bring to the discussion.

Giving back through education

Equality is a difficult thing to define because it’s simple. Equality is about everyone having equal access. It’s not about everyone following the same paths, but about everyone having the opportunity to follow the path that makes them happy.

I’m lucky because I’ve been born into a family where every opportunity was open to me. I spent a few years growing up in Pakistan amongst the Afghan refugee community, where that was not the case.

All of a sudden when I was 11, the girls I was playing with had their heads covered, they were cooking, they weren’t allowed to play, they were looking after the children –  whereas the boys were able to do what they wanted until much older. They were allowed to play and it didn’t make sense to me.

That’s when the idea of equality started to crystallise for me, because it was my first experience of inequality. These girls, just because they were girls, didn’t have the same opportunities as their brothers.

Of course, I don’t personally have the experience of being excluded from education, but what has made me interested in this project, is that I am really lucky that I have had access to all these opportunities.

I think we’ve actually got a responsibility because we are lucky to give something back to the community and to others who don’t have the same opportunities.

The Melbourne Free University is starting their second semester of free classes at the North Carlton Railway Station Neighbourhood House in August.