The University in Turmoil: Occupations, Strikes and the Search for More

The tipping point for Britain’s university system could be very near. The list of problems it faces is long: fees, cuts, privatisation and pressure to change curricula to ever-more-narrow ideas of employability. There has been large-scale (mis)management of the student loan budget meaning a hole of £570m, and last week saw the privatisation of the student loan book with £890m of loans sold for £160m. Workloads are increasing, as is casualisation of staff through zero-hour contracts, and there is high disparity in pay between senior and other staff.

One attempt to counter this avalanche of bad news is the current action being taken over national pay by UCU, Unite and Unison. However welcome this action is and however strong its support is among staff and students, the second day of strike cannot dispel the more general signs of fatigue and apathy in the sector. Worse, the acquiescence to the reforms by a considerable number of staffstaff, and the reactions by some higher up the pay scale not comfortable with the fight for better pay, are a sad reflection of the individualism and lack of solidarity that can pervade the sector.

There has, however, been a recent, heartening upsurge in student activism. Prompted to organise more locally by the failures of the broader student movement, ‘Stop the Cuts’ campaigns and occupations in 2010 set the tone and shape for student resistance, as the more recent cases at Sussex, Warwick, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Sussex again demonstrate.

These students reject the consumer role foisted on them by government policy; they stress unity, and push for an education unchained to corporate notions of employability, based on values of solidarity, equal access to education, with knowledge as a common good rather than a commodity. Can this new generation take control of the runaway train that is wrecking the UK’s education landscape?


Student Protests: A Renaissance

Since 2010, but perhaps more vocally since Occupy Sussex, some of us have been discussing a ‘new wind blowing through student politics’. Occupy Sussex emerged last February 2013 out of a campaign against the outsourcing of 235 services staff. The campaign was launched in May 2012 and led to several key developments: a historic 2-month occupation, the creation of a single issue Pop-Up union for all university staff, the cementing of global and local networks of solidarity, and a logo which has been taken over by campaigns across the country, the yellow square badge as reference to Québec’s famous ‘carré rouge’.

Across the country last week, student protests have sprung up in defence of education, most notably in Birmingham, York, Warwick, Edinburgh, Brighton, London and Manchester. Spurred on by the news of regular job losses, the closure of popular and highly-ranked but financially non-viable departments and research centres, new tactics and discourses are being deployed to resist a growing neoliberal programme. On the back of a national day of action against the privatisation of the student loan book, banner drops, awareness events and occupations have begun again At the time of writing, the night before the 3rd December UCU strike, students at Goldsmiths, Sheffield, Ulster and Exeter had all also gone into occupation in solidarity with their striking lecturers.

At Birmingham, students occupied their Senate Chambers from 20 to 28 November. An injunction was granted on 25th November, which banned ‘occupational-style protest’ and attempted, unsuccessfully, to recover legal costs from two students. The occupation continued, however, with students and staff outside the occupation demonstrating for better working conditions. Students in other cities such as Leeds demonstrated their support, NCAFC and Sheffield called for a national demonstration similar to that organised by Occupy Sussex last year. In the case of Occupy Sussex, management waited two months before threatening an injunction, a lifeline which owed much to the astonishing support by staff, public personalities and students and academics worldwide. But in both the Sussex and Birmingham cases, injunctions have been used as blanket protest bans extending far beyond the original action, an extremely worrying development.

Occupy Sussex have re-occupied the space they were forced to leave in April. This September the Conference Centre became the home to Chartwells, one of the two companies taking over the outsourced staff. Managing an entry on the evening of 26 November, 50 students reclaimed the space to continue protesting against the outsourcing and the marketisation of education, and to support and raise awareness for the 3 December strike by staff.


New Solidarities, Open Visions

The movement’s strength lies in its makeup – a combination of students, early-career academics and a diverse group of administrative and services staff, as well as a small but indomitable older guard of established academics. These battles, fought for those staff members on whom students rely, is a positive sign that new solidarities are being formed across the boundaries of class and administrative structures.

The campaign is horizontally organised, visually imaginative and has used interlinked practices to move the struggle towards the defence of basic labour conditions. It has been unaligned to specific political groups and has attracted a wide pool of support. The production and use of strong visual symbols, helped by the explosion of online social networks, has also played an increasingly positive role. The national demonstration at Sussex on 25 March 2013 attracted students from 20 universities, which demonstrated a strong desire to construct networks of solidarity between local initiatives.

The focus of the renaissance has been broader in its scope than the graduate-specific concerns which have dominated many NUS campaigns (tuition fees, welfare and student rights, disability and mitigating evidence). This is reflected by three crucial campaigns: the ground-breaking 3Cosas campaign in defence of sick pay, holiday pay and pensions for outsourced cleaners at the University of London, which gained a historic victory last week; Occupy Sussex itself and its broader 19-month-long struggle against the outsourcing of the campus services; and protests at London Met against a plan to outsource every member of staff except the senior management team.

The vision of this new wave of activism is based on several ideals. First among these is that academic and non-academic staff must be defended against the cost-saving reforms which are led by management teams whose numbers and pay rises are increasing. Secondly, it posits a radical idea of a university education and forges its identity outside the parameters of government policy and recommendations.

However, Occupy Sussex has always included different conceptions of what universities are and should be. As one longstanding student member of the campaign explained to me, ‘I have no nostalgia for the “public university”. To me, the “public universities” were still social factories, concerned with producing labour power and full of social relations founded in domination and elitism. For me it is evident that the utopian university must be open to anyone and completely free, engaged in education as liberation and ferociously inquisitive.’ What is important about Occupy Sussex, and campaigns like it, is that it has created a space in which these ideas can be debated.  


Education: Vocation, Business or Crime?

A common thread between more and less radical visions is the defence of the ideal of a space open and accessible to all regardless of nationality, class, gender, religion, disability or culture. The major problem with the discourse of ‘defending the public’ is that universities have not been public institutions per se for a long time. Indeed, Andrew McGettigan and others have been at pains to explain the intricacies of the hybrid statuses of universities as ‘independent corporate institutions with charitable status’.

With more and more HE colleges being bought by for-profit consortia and becoming top-charging universities overnight, the whole sector will soon be directly driven by its ability to produce surplus and attract investment from corporate stakeholders. This means that curricular and extra-curricular activities as well as research themes will be completely determined by their ability to deliver graduates capable of repaying loans and enhancing the profile of their university by doing so.

In other words, private companies are buying into universities to either profit from the ‘education business’ or make sure universities produce employees who will fulfil more tasks at a lesser cost. In a recent LRB article Stephan Collini draws attention to some worrying figures in a House of Commons Public Accounts Committee from last December: ‘cash paid to private colleges has trebled in one year and now exceeds £100m; the number of students studying with private colleges on unregulated courses has doubled in one year.’ Moreover, the fact that an important criterion for university rankings is now the rate and nature of graduate employment, it is clear that to score high, one has to produce good employees. Indeed, Sussex fell from 27th to 50th in the Guardian University Guide for precisely this reason. This is a question of survival for university managers, who become overseers of training factories.

Resistance to these reforms can prove costly. It was revealed this week by an FOI request that the injunction obtained in April 2013 by the University of Sussex against the occupiers cost £81,812 in legal fees. Considering the widespread support for the occupation inside and outside the university, and the fact that the injunction failed in its aim of preventing protest on campus, these costs seem grossly misspent.

But the personal cost is the most worrying. On the day of the eviction, four students involved in Occupy Sussex were arrested and contest their charges. If one accused of criminal damage was cleared in court this Monday 2 December, others charged with obstructing police officers are still waiting, 8 months after the arrest. The increase in policing, spying and criminalisation of students – notably, the recent arrest of University of London Union president Michael Chessum – shows the need for the development of strong legal networks and campaigns such as Defend The Right To Protest, especially considering cuts to legal aid.


The Legacy of Occupy Sussex

Sadly, the outsourcing at Sussex has not been stopped. Chartwells took over the catering services in September 2013, while Interserve are set to transfer and take over Estates and Facilities Management in January 2014.

The campaign did, however, make considerable gains. Due to its pressure on unions and management the negotiation process successfully won better pension arrangements and severance pays for staff. The campaign uncovered some deeply problematic and undemocratic practices pervading university structures and governing bodies. Moreover, it rebuilt a sense of community among staff members and students, and inspired many people to find out more about the changes in HE and how to organise against them. 

As a testament to its legacy, the campaign remains active and vibrant. Weekly campaign meetings have been ongoing since September, well-minuted and publicised, and a new group of students has taken over the basic organising tasks, driving the campaign into another phase. This term has seen demos, lectures on outsourcing and privatisation, pickets in front of outsourced cafes, information stalls, safe spaces and campaign policies, social events, excellent commentaries, and finally this week, a new occupation. A flash occupation was also organised on 30 October 2013, on the eve of the first day of the 3 union national strike over fair pay. Students took over a lecture hall for one afternoon and night to show support for lecturers and tutors, before a march towards strikers in which they sang songs and distributed sandwiches.

After spending a few hours last week in the latest occupation, comparisons between what is happening now and the events of February-April 2013 were unavoidable. There were a lot of new faces and some old. There was a more relaxed atmosphere this time around, no doubt thanks to the acquired knowledge of the space and its practicalities. I asked people what they thought defined the campaign from one occupation to another. Reactions differ from disaffection, disappointment, to excitement and total dedication. Either way, ‘Occupy Sussex’ still seems to be able to envelop a myriad of expectations and desires, of strategies and tactics, and crucially, of proving that resistance comes and goes, opens and closes.

Beyond this, the spill over of the campaign into other autonomous local initiatives is another indication of its legacy. The Autonomous Student Network (ASN) and Sussex Democracy Project are some of the groups discussing how to set up alternative and more democratic representative assemblies on campus. Last weekend a well-attended conference in Brighton on resisting restructuring in education brought together students and staff from different local institutions, and even from university protests in Sheffield and Manchester.

The campaign has had an extraordinary snowball effect. The fact that students and workers are coming from other cities to discuss how resistance occurred and where to go next is the healthiest sign. It is also probably where the greatest hopes for the future of UK higher education lie.  

Maïa Pal lectures in Sociology at the University of Sussex. Twitter: @maia_pal 

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