The lecture hall at Birkbeck University (all photos taken on a phone because trying to be sly with a DSLR is a terrible idea)
Fuck universities. In the last few years, it feels like a lot of work has gone into making them seem as unappealing as possible. Once presented by New Labour as holiday camps for anyone who was young, had a few quid and knew the difference between the First and Second World Wars, a massive rise in tuition fees has turned them into obelisks of crippling debt, lorded over by cops and kleptocrats and stuffed full of pricks. No longer are they havens for state school kids looking to better themselves in the downtime that tends to crop up during 36 months of continuous partying. If you go to university now, chances are you're either super wealthy or the kind of masochist who wants to saddle yourself with debts of around £43,500.
However, apart from the piece of paper you're given at the end, I'm not really sure what privileges those fees afford you. As far as I can remember, nobody was checking my loan payments every time I entered a lecture theatre. In fact, nobody was checking anything at all.
With that in mind, I figured I'd see whether I could just circumvent the entire system and get a degree's worth of knowledge for free by sneaking into lecture halls. Of course, ultimately I'd never be able to actually get a degree with all the free knowledge I'd accumulate, but knowledge is power, and power means not needing pointless shit like degrees or £40 graduation photos.
I wanted to make sure I chose the right institution to gain my free education, the only real criteria being that it was easy to regularly sneak into. So, I decided to make a list and test how simple it was to ghost into each of them unnoticed.
The roof at the Camberwell College of Arts. I'm not sure how I ended up here.
Because of their reputation for being arty pussies who'd probably applaud the conceptual merit of me scamming them for a free education, I thought I'd ease into the week by visiting Goldsmiths first. I spent £3.10 on my disguise – a coffee and a copy of The i newspaper. With that in place, there wasn't really anything to differentiate me from the few students roaming the corridors, bar the fact I wasn't paying £9,000 to do so.
The uni was practically deserted but I ended up stumbling across a couple of groups of students waiting outside seminar rooms. This is where I made my first stupid, rookie mistake; instead of walking straight in, I asked the teacher's permission.
The first – a Global Cultural Interaction lecturer – shut me down right there and then. The second – who was leading a Philosophy class discussing depression – sent me outside so that he could deliberate with the paying students about whether I could join in. Unfortunately they turned me down, proving once and for all that Philosophy students are as much lackeys to the capitalist orthodoxy as the rest of us.
After being rejected twice in quick succession, I figured I'd try my luck at the Camberwell College of Arts, a ten-minute bus ride away. Getting in was easy enough, but after that I ran into a few difficulties. Following some signs to the lecture theatre, I ended up in the basement, which smelled overwhelmingly of shite. In my confusion, I ended up walking outside and following some more signs and eventually I ended up climbing some stairs to the roof.
I don't know if this was a result of terrible signage or just my own brief disorientation, but I wasn't learning anything on the roof and decided to head back to Goldsmiths.
The lecture hall at Goldsmiths
Back at Goldsmiths, I headed straight to a lecture theatre and was just in time to join a stream of students filing in to take their seats. The next time I moved, I'd sat through an hour-long lecture on "media rituals" and kind of half learned how to dissect the relationship between fans and celebrities. Hanging around afterwards, I realised how incredibly easy it would be to repeat that same process with every single lecture in every single one of the college's lecture halls.
Goldsmiths ease of entry: Seminars are a no-go; weirdly, teachers seem to realise when there's a face in the room that isn't one of the 12 they've been staring at for the past three months. Lectures, however, are a piece of piss.
Camberwell ease of entry: Don't bother, unless your parents made you go to orientation classes when you were younger. Plus, I'd imagine most of the tutoring here takes place in small groups rather than lecture halls.
The lecture hall at Kings College
My second day began with a visit to Elephant and Castle for a walk around Southbank University and the London College of Communication (LCC). Only, I couldn't get into either of them because both campuses had barriers that only opened with a valid student card, as well as security staff who don't believe nervous-looking men who are clearly lying about losing their student card.
Great job, Elephant and Castle-based universities!
Next up was Kings College, which turned out to be far more lenient in its approach to admitting strangers. However, while I wandered the halls, I disappointingly found that certain rooms – like the lecture theatres and some smaller classrooms – were protected with the same student swipe terminals that had stumped me earlier that morning.
But I wasn't perturbed, not yet. After lunch, I followed a group that were heading towards a lecture theatre on the ground floor. Applying the same "Trojan Horse" method I'd used at Goldsmiths, someone held the swipe-guarded door open for me and I sashayed straight on through.
Inside, I got two hours of totally free knowledge about exponential growth curves and how they can be applied to bacteria growth and human populations. Result.
Southbank University ease of entry: Impossible, unless you can be bothered to clone a student card.
LCC ease of entry: Same deal as Southbank.
Kings College ease of entry: They know how to keep people out of specific rooms, but their methods aren't foolproof – in that all you need to do to access a lecture is stand behind someone as they walk through a door.
A protest I stumbled across at Birkbeck
I arrived at University College London (UCL) at around 9AM, hoping to find another large group I could join before lecturers had drunk their coffee and were mentally prepared to clock every face sitting in front of them. Unfortunately, I only found one lecture hall, which wasn't in use, and lots of rooms with more of those pesky ID barriers.
I eventually came across a bunch of people walking into a building I hadn't already explored, so tried to replicate the sleuth approach that had worked at Goldsmiths and Kings. However, almost as soon as I walked in the security guy picked me out from the crowd and asked for my ID. I have no idea how he knew I was an impostor but I sealed my own fate when I told him I was "just trying to meet my friend on level two", before he pointed to a floor plan with a conspicuous lack of any level two.
Since security were now presumably on the lookout for a tall guy with a bright orange jacket and a Scottish accent, I decided to move on to Birkbeck University, just round the corner. Arriving on campus, I came across something that looked like a freeform salsa class, but was apparently a protest organised by the union in solidarity with university cleaners, who were set to have their wages cut.
After watching the demonstration for a while, I explored the campus, only to find lecture halls either not in use or classes made up of around 15 people – rooms I knew I wouldn't be able to infiltrate because teachers aren't idiots. Carrying on my search, I came across a lecture theatre and snuck in, mostly unnoticed.
For the next 45 minutes, I learned about the pros and cons of applying economic sanctions to a country. Good luck to the dickhead who tries to economically sanction me.
UCL ease of entry: Tricky. There are ID barriers everywhere and the security are apparently both very paranoid and very vigilant, which doesn't make sneaking past them particularly easy.
Birkbeck ease of entry: This seemed easy enough, and was pretty simple once I actually found a room being used.
The lecture hall at Imperial College
To kick off my last day I headed to Imperial College, which appears to follow the same non-existent approach to security as the Scotland-England border. I wandered about completely unrestricted for a while, until my travels took me to the lecture hall in the aeronautics department. A dab hand at the whole getting-into-lecture-theatres-unnoticed by this point, I took my place near the back of the hall.
I think the class was called "Fluid Dynamics", but I couldn't be sure. In fact, all I got for the entire hour was this:
Either way, I'd established that it was easy enough to get into, so I moved on to my last university of the week: the London School of Economics (LSE). Unsurprisingly, for an institution that teaches people about money, they seemed keen to protect theirs – with more of those ID gates. It crossed my mind to approach a fairly laid back-looking student, tell them what I was doing and ask if they could swipe me through, but that wouldn't have worked because there was a receptionist strategically placed next to every gate I'd seen.
Unlike Southbank and LCC, I was at least able to access some parts of the university campus, but there was no way I was getting near anything more educational than the Waterstone's directly next to the entrance.
Imperial College ease of entry: Very simple. I'd imagine you could walk into most lectures unchallenged, as long as you were one of around 30 to 40 people.
LSE ease of entry: This place is basically London's answer to a Scientology Central Org. Don't bother.
- - -
With that, I'd come to the end of my complimentary academic week. I'd gone to nine universities in total and managed to attend four lectures and a protest. I'd also learned that fanatical behaviour is a very normal thing; that exponential growth curves can be applied to a bunch of stuff; that economic sanctions can be both great and shit for a country; and that f-E1 = Operating Point, Nomenclature!
Of the universities I visited, LSE was by far the hardest to access, while Imperial was definitely the easiest. Which is good, because LSE's courses are pretty limited in their scope, whereas I can learn about anything from biotechnology to something called petroleum geoscience at Imperial.
So there you have it: if you enjoy knowledge for knowledge's sake, there are a range of educational institutions in London (and most likely throughout the rest of the UK) that will accidentally give it to you for absolutely no charge at all. And for anyone who's been doing this for years and won't be able to when Imperial install a bunch of ID terminals, I'm really sorry.
Follow Euan on Twitter: @EuanCoe