While most students were packing up to head home for Christmas, myself and a group of friends camped out on the top floor of a conference centre in the University of Warwick, the most visible and notable of last term’s resurgent wave of student occupations.
You may have missed how this began. Students carried out a peaceful sit-in for free education in a reception area of a University building, not unlike the Exam Schools sit-in that took place a year ago here in Oxford. They were then met with police tasers and CS gas being sprayed in students’ faces. This was unprecedented – the first use of such weapons on students at a British university. Students then occupied a university conference centre in protest at the police violence. Rather than apologise for management’s decision to call in the police, or condemn the police brutality, Vice-Chancellor Nigel Thrift rushed to defend the heavy-handed tactics.
The demonstration following the use of CS gas saw over a thousand students gather on Warwick University campus, the largest demonstration in the institution’s history. Fol- lowing that, students rushed into the Rootes building, the University’s most lucrative conference his was a commercialised space in the University, reclaimed by the student community in protest not only at how education was being marketised, but also against how the institution perceived of and treated its students. In response to this occupation, the University went to the courts to seek a possession order and an injunction, banning occupations on campus for a year. They have effectively criminalised the last form of protest available to students, when all other channels are closed off.
The student protests that have bubbled up over the last 12 months have resulted in a variety of responses from management, some of which have been as draconian as Warwick’s. Two students at Birmingham were suspended for nine months for their part in an occupation, while the University pushed for them to be expelled outright. Five students at Sussex University were suspended for organising an occupation to protest the outsourcing of 200 jobs on campus, later to be reinstated after a campaign.
The mechanisms by which universities repress people are well known. The more interesting question is why universities act in this way. It is not simply a feature of ‘the neoliberal university’ which is repressive. My father’s university, Lancaster, tried to expel him in the 1970s for his part in organising an occupation there. The pre-Blair ‘public’ university could be just as repressive towards students.
Education has always been a function of the status quo where norms become ‘good behaviour’. Any student wishing to challenge that, to question the way we organise our universities, our society, puts themselves at great personal risk.
University bosses are not our friends. The bosses who cut cleaners’ pay, victimise their union activists and then cajole them, are the same bosses who demand that we pay more tuition fees, that our loans are privatised for profit, that our repayments are changed, and that our welfare as students is secondary to our purchasing power as consumers – all this while raking in an average of over £250,000 a year, and in our own vice-chancellor, Andrew Hamilton’s case, £424,000 a year!
It needs to be understood that violence on the part of the University and the police is not an unexpected twist, but a part of the struggle.
If we fight, then people will be hurt, arrested, beaten by cops and tear-gassed. Someday soon, those tasers brought to the Warwick sit-in could even be used. But leading activists are suspended and threatened with expulsion to cow the rest into accepting the present order. These are risks that Warwick students have shown they are willing to overcome. The challenge for the rest of the student movement is to join with them