Police suppress challenges to university marketisation
Clifford Fleming is the co-convenor of the Young Greens of England and Wales, and Campaigns and Citizenship Officer at the University of Manchester Students’ Union. He tweets @cliffordfleming.
Universities are places of knowledge, of research, of teaching; they are of huge public benefit and good. It is alarming to see the speed at which Higher Education under this government is developing into a marketplace, with more and more emphasis on marketing the “student experience” and less focus on quality teaching, knowledge generation and critical thinking. University staff have been on strike twice in the past weeks after taking the brunt of these changes, with a 13% real terms pay cut slapped on top of their increased workloads over the past 5 years. And that’s on top of the widespread use of zero-hours contracts revealed by the UCU in September. The Young Greens have for the past year been calling for a pay ratio of 10:1 between the highest and lowest paid staff at our universities, publishing research on the issue in October and organising action on campuses across the country.
For the past few weeks protests and occupations in UK Universities have been growing. Students all over the country have been calling on their institutions to pay staff a fair wage and protesting against decisions to privatise services and close courses. It is disheartening and infuriating to hear from so many of my colleagues in the student movement that when they voice their concerns they are ignored; “now isn’t the time” is a phrase used all too often by senior leaders. In a fight back students have held a series of protests and occupations across different Universities. Unfortunately, the reaction from both the police and several University management teams has been disgraceful.
Wednesday night saw the occupation of Senate House at the University of London over planned closures of the Students’ Union, where violence from the police saw students punched and dragged to the ground by their hair. Shelly Asquith, President of the University of Arts London, said that once coming outside of the occupation she saw some students “repeatedly hit, one plucked out and shoved in a van”. She continues: “as police tried to drive away with a student inside we stood in the road. This is when they started to drag us, push us out of the way very aggressively, picking a couple out and putting them in vans.”
Those that were arrested were given needlessly restrictive bail conditions which banned them from being within 50 meters of the School of Oriental and African Studies (which for those who study at one of several universities in Bloomsbury means their campuses are off-limits), and more worryingly bans them from being in public with more than 3 other people, a clear violation of their freedom of assembly. The Young Greens utterly condemn police violence, and Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones will be challenging the Metropolitan police commissioner on these issues.
Wednesday also saw the University of Sussex Vice Chancellor, Professor Michael Farthing, suspend five students over their involvement in activism as part of the Occupy Sussex group. The following day Sussex saw huge protests where hundreds gathered to call for the immediate retraction of the suspensions. Meanwhile in Liverpool an occupation started on Tuesday in solidarity with the strike over fair pay, but anger has been growing over the wider issues surrounding the privatisation of British Universities. “Occupy Liverpool Uni values education as a whole, as a right” says Megan de Meo who took part in the protests. She explains how the occupation brought a group together and has increased political activism on campus: “the occupation has helped create a hotbed of discussion”. The reaction from Liverpool University was to attempt to kettle the occupiers using metal fences. After a tip-off from University security, the occupiers decided to leave. Megan explains that it is far from over: “we’re planning on targeting open days and to tell students about these issues.”
In Birmingham the Defend Education group also went into occupation. Hattie Craig, the Vice President (Education) of Birmingham Guild of Students, explained how in her role as a sabbatical officer she became tired of “the complete lack of democracy” in the University: “going to meetings where they always led to dead-ends wasn’t making any difference”. When Hattie joined the occupation she was ordered to court, alongside another student, where they were asked to pay for £25,000 of legal costs. The University of Liverpool followed this by ordering an injunction which the group bravely defied, ending with the arrival of bailiffs and police. Hattie explained how since the tuition fee increase “frustrations have been growing” and Birmingham Defend Education would continue to oppose injustice within the University.
As Co-Chair of the Young Greens, but also as a sabbatical officer in Manchester, I stand in solidarity with student activists campaigning for transparent, public Universities that pay a fair wage to staff and treat students as partners. The Young Greens will continue to fight for a free, public education and not education as a private enterprise. We will continue to support occupations and demonstrations and we actively encourage students to stand up for their rights and their education.