Free Queen’s started in the fall of 2000, when Marney McDiarmid, then coordinator of the Kingston/Queen’s branch of OPIRG (Ontario Public Interest Research Group), was surfing the net and happened upon the name “Free U of T.” Hooked by this unlikely and ambiguous epithet, Marney investigated further and discovered that a small group of concerned faculty and students at the University of Toronto were organizing free mini-courses to protest rapidly rising tuition costs in Ontario universities. Marney wondered if other Canadian universities were offering open learning experiences and discovered the “Learning Exchange,” an outreach program established by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver’s inner city, the Downtown Eastside. Would there be interest at Queen’s in a free outreach program? Marney asked.


The answer was yes, for, at this time, the principle of equal access to education seemed to hang in the balance at Queen’s. By the year 2000, the fee for auditing a course at Queen’s (i.e., sitting in as a non-credit student) had climbed to $450. Between 1995 and 2000, tuition fees for Queen’s medical students had risen by approximately 500%. Faced with massive provincial budget cuts, Queen’s administration was lobbying the Ontario government for total “tuition deregulation,” that is, for the right to raise tuition fees in all its programs without restriction. In fact, one option under serious consideration was privatizing Queen’s University and supporting it with very high tuition fees rather than relying on public funding.

The small group of people who launched Free Queen’s realized that offering free, non-credit courses to Kingston residents would not alleviate the university’s budget crisis nor ease the tuition burden of regular students, but they hoped it would constitute a small, positive step toward educational equity.

So posters went up in coffee shops downtown, in north end stores and community centres, and in all the branches of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library system, and public service announcements were run in the local newspapers. Free Queen’s offered its first course in the fall of 2001.

Free Queen’s courses have been win-win for Queen’s and Kingston ever since. Every course has allowed the university to share its rich resources and expertise with any Kingstonian who cares to register. And every course has also enriched the university by importing a bit of Kingston into the academy: university instructors have gained new perspectives from socially engaged mature students who test their learning against the litmus of their lives.

Free Queen’s courses have been designed to bridge academic and practical concerns. Almost all have combined sessions led by Queen’s professors with sessions led by experts and resource people in the Kingston community, and many, such as the very first course offered, Queer Studies, have addressed topics given scant attention in formal university curricula.

Free Queen’s students don’t pay a cent and instructors volunteer their time. By its very impecuniosity, Free Queen’s has countered the idea that education is all about dollars and cents and getting ahead in the world. The emphasis at Free Queen’s has been on learning for the love of it, on integrating living and learning, and on the social wealth that accrues to communities that share learning freely.


The first Free Queen’s organizing committee consisted of Kathy Beers (Student Affairs), Julie Darke (Human Rights), Mary Margaret Dauphinee (Equity), Louise Fish (Security), Janice McAlpine (Strathy Language Unit), Marney McDiarmid (OPIRG), Joanne Page (poet and citizen about town), Jack Sinnott (JDUC), Susan Wilcox (Education) and Suzi Wong (Ban Righ Centre).

Over the years, the composition of the committee changed as people stepped down, people stepped up, and people’s services were coopted. The current organizing committee consists of Amy Allcock, Jill Christie, Danielle Gugler, Sayyida Jaffer, Janice McAlpine, Dana Olwan and Jennifer Stacey. (New members always welcome!) Past members and supporters include Diane Bootsma, Meri Diamond, Kathy Grant, Sandra Murray, Tracey Taylor and Judy Wilson. Free Queen’s hires a student assistant each year through the university’s Work-Study program. Graduate and undergraduate students, including Xiongwei Cai, Eddie Ho, Lisa Dawn Murison, April Waddell, and Tarun Singh, have facilitated the work of Free Queen’s by taking care of everything from coffee breaks, to technical troubleshooting, to speaker introductions. Queen’s Equity office ably handled the registration for Free Queen’s courses until 2007, when the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SPGS) happily agreed to take on that administrative task.

The names of most of Free Queen’s volunteer instructors can be discovered by following the links on our Past Courses web page to outlines of the courses offered from Fall 2001 to the present. Inevitably and regrettably, the record is incomplete and we have omitted the names of some presenters who gave their time and shared their passion with a Free Queen’s audience.


Free Queen’s offers one course each Fall and Winter term, in which up to 80 students are registered on a first come, first served basis. Although larger lecture halls could accommodate greater numbers, keeping class sizes small enough to encourage interaction has been a guiding principle of Free Queen’s. By 2006, word was out about Free Queen’s, and classes were filling up almost as soon as courses were announced over the Free Queen’s listserv. Free Queen’s was forced to institute an attendance policy: attend at least one half of the evening sessions in a course or lose the privilege of registering for the next course. The purpose of this policy was to make it more likely that people who were highly interested in and committed to a particular course topic would find a seat in that classroom.

The list of Free Queen’s course offered to date can be found on our Past Courses page. Click on the titles on that page to view a description or outline of each course.


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