Berlin – a city where higher education is free – seemed like a fitting place to hold Saturday’s lecture by key members of Free Cooper Union: a student activist group who have been fighting against tuition fees at New York’s Cooper Union for the last four years and by doing so became a symbol for updated forms of resistance.

The talk – titled simply “Reflections” – was organised by the American artists (and New Theatre founders) Max Pitegoff and Calla Henkel, who themselves began collaborating while attending Cooper Union. Hosted at Between Bridges, the non-profit space founded by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, around 30 people gathered together to hear the art graduates Victoria Sobel and Casey Gollan speak about their experience at Cooper. That their story interested Tillmans isn’t surprising: he is fast gaining a reputation for his eclectic exhibition program at Between Bridges, which often favours underrepresented or marginalised figures. He himself was made famous by his own photographic interest in youth culture and rebellion.

The story of Cooper Union is a long and convoluted one but it starts with a simple premise. The founder of the university Peter Cooper, a philanthropist and inventor, believed in free education for all. In 1859 when in the rest of America education was the preserve of rich, white men, at Cooper Union discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or sex was prohibited. Until Autumn 2014, when it introduced fees for undergraduates, Cooper Union was one of the last remaining tution-free universities in America.

Peter Cooper's assertion that education should be "free as air and water" is what Free Cooper Union (FCU) feel that the board of trustees and two former presidents of the university violated. At the beginning of the talk the two art graduates emphasized Peter Cooper’s modesty, arguing that, “Cooper Union was never about having the best facilities.” What was integral, they said, was that Cooper Union remain free.

Their story can be seen as part of a wider crisis in higher education. As universities increasingly adopt business models “modest” is no longer an adjective that they want to be associated with; places of higher education, like businesses, must now be seen as risk-taking and forward-thinking. To this end in 2006 work began on the award-winning 41 Cooper Square, which was designed by “starchitect” Thom Mayne and championed by the previous President Dr. George Campbell Jr. These types of buildings, which Gollan and Sobel called “vaguely ominous and futuristic” – often designed by big name architects – are being used more and more to increase the brand power of the universities that commission them. In order to garner the awards bestowed upon them they often privilege design over practicality: the giant mental shades over each window at 41 Cooper Square, for example, seriously affects the quality of light in the art studios (just one of many problems that they described). These buildings are also expensive. Cooper Square cost $1000 per square foot; an expense that Sobel and Gollan argued is unreasonable for a not-for-profit institution.

Amid rumblings among the students and faculty that the university was in financial difficulty in the autumn of 2012 Free Cooper Union was formed. The group staged multiple occupations, the first of which was a takeover of Cooper Union’s clock tower. During the Between Bridges talk Gollan and Sobel explained that the eleven students barricaded themselves in the small room with a huge blockade that they built in the university’s wood workshop. Many more students came out to protest in front of the building holding red balloons as a sign of solidarity. Laughing, Gollan recounted how some of the engineering students bought pizza and successfully calculated how many balloons it would take to float the takeaway box up to them in the clock tower. It’s this mix of humour, intelligence and perseverance – no doubt influenced by Sobel’s prior involvement in Occupy Wall Street – that is characteristic of all of FCU’s protests.

It was announced in April 2013 that the school would begin charging tuition for the first time in its 155 year history. A group of students went to present the president Jamshed Bharucha with a vote of no confidence only to find his office open and empty. They decided spontaneously to stay: the occupation lasted over two months. During a recent roundtable discussion on art schools in October’s Artforum the Artist Jory Rabinovitz said, “First and foremost, Victoria and other Cooper students sacrificed their arts educations and dropped everything to fight for the model of free tuition.” Although their individual sacrifices for a “greater good” shouldn’t be overlooked what is interesting about Rabinovitz’s statement is that for many of the students it seems like the opposite is true, rather than “dropping everything” they found a way to continue to be creative and incorporate the protest into their practice.

The students live streamed the occupation as well as making Vines of their activities, which included creating sculptures from things they found in the office, hosting dance parties, as well as regularly filming themselves cleaning, which Gollan said confused the administration and acted as a stark contrast to the general chaos in the school. During the university’s annual exhibition they painted the entire corridor around the office black and made their own exhibition, asking alumni and faculity, as well as fellow students, to contribute work.

Something that repeatedly comes up in the Art Forum discussion is the idea that, through actions such as cuts to tutorials and the downsizing (or closure) of libraries and communal spaces, the fundamental principle of an art education, that of “having bodies in a room”, is being attacked. The activities at Cooper Union more than anything seem to be about keeping, or fostering, a community in opposition to the administration’s manic desire for growth and expansion. This idea played an even greater role after the end to the hostilities (an investigation by the New York State’s Attorney found that there had been financial mismanagement at Cooper) when in September the interim president William Mea (Jamshed Bharucha resigned in 2015) gave them access to a university-owned empty retail space that they used to stage a community residency. As a result of the “trauma” the students felt after this three-year struggle they decided to rebrand Free Cooper Union as Nonstop Cooper, changing their logo from the red clock tower that they felt was too mired in the visual language of activism, to a more colourful alternative.

Nonstop Cooper is an attempt to find a way to protest that has staying power beyond the first bouts of collective rage. It might be many years (if at all) before Cooper Union can offer free tuition again and the duo are still working across the community on themes of collaboration and resistance, which they call “para-institionality”. Partly in Berlin to regroup and research other stories of protest for their fellowship in New York Sobel and Gollan are keen to avoid nostalgia. Although pleased about the results of the Supreme Court lawsuit brought against the board of trustees they believe that the problem is much larger than what happened at their own university. In a recently published book by Free Cooper Union they write: "This is not a financial scandal, it's a cultural crisis".

Victoria Sobel and Casey Gollan are 2015-2017 Vera List Centre Fellows. For more information visit on Free Cooper Union visit the website.