For the 4 years of my undergraduate course the Research Club was my on campus home. I ate, socialised, studied and sought refuge here. Though I was also a QMU member, as a mature student I preferred the atmosphere at the postgrad club. When I started investigating postgraduate options last year, that I knew of the Research Club definitely was a factor in deciding to apply back to this university.
Fast forward a year and I’m immersed in a Masters course. I’m also immersed in an incredible project to both fight against the attacks on the University’s rich academic tradition and reclaiming a space where I can engage in all those non lecture-based learning experiences that University should be about for everyone. The Free Hetherington has become a place you can almost guarantee to end up in a stimulating, intelligent discussion on issues ranging from abortion to global politics. Daily in here I meet those from different faculties, and over a cup of tea enjoy cross pollinated conversations rich with the diversity of disciplines, knowledge and philosophies that each person brings.
But its not just the calibre of the informal socialising that excites me about our building. It’s the chance to be working with incredible people on a truly inspiring project. Here we collectively organise a space, solving problems as they come up, writing press releases, running an accounting system, maintaining a growing library, working out how to schedule our very busy meeting space for the many student groups, lectures, film showings and meetings that it is used for. We have a permanent door rota, with 2 volunteers on duty at all times. We clean, cook, tidy, maintain 24 hour first aid cover and for new people we make cups of tea and run tours of the building. We have a non commercial venue run by a directly democratic process. New people often are joining in with the basic upkeep of the space within their first visit, for instance by helping with the washing up. The culture in here is really welcoming, and I think is what encourages and empowers people to feel they can get involved. Its truly satisfying to be able to be a contributor, not just a consumer. To be a part of a friendly community, where you are valued for doing the washing up, rather than stigmatised for being a service worker.
I keep being told that what we have in the Free Hetherington can’t work longterm. An unpredicted financial crisis, I am told, means we must accept cuts to essential services at national, city and University levels and yet I am told that no other system would work as well as this current one, even as I witness how badly this one is working for most people in this society. And yet in this climate where rich and powerful people are closing down services on and off campus, a group of us are providing for free a valuable resource open to all. Last week we were attacked by David Newall, from his privileged position as secretary to the University court in an official email sent to all staff and students in which he appears to have attempted to deliberately mislead about what we were up to. Full of insinuations of our irresponsibility and claims that we have created a “climate of fear”, he actually found precious little to back up his innuendo – I guess that he had held off commenting or contacting us until now out of mistaken belief that without mature and sensible people like himself to ensure smooth running, he would soon have had plenty of material to attack us with. Instead he was reduced to clutching at straws, when actually we have had less incidents with only a month’s experience of running this space than most venues with years of practice to draw from. At the same time our self appointed national and university management are making radical, poorly thought through drastic changes to our most valuable institutions because of a financial crisis created by these same individuals.
University for me was not just somewhere I came to enhance my career prospects, but because I wanted to learn. I wanted to deepen my understanding of the world. I wanted an engaging, challenging, nurturing environment and I have found it here in the Free Hetherington. Now the struggle is to bring this back out to the rest of the University and wider society, and in doing so defend the rich traditions of both against the radical attacks we are all facing.