Protest: Why We Support The Student Occupations

What's that I hear you cry? No If's, No But's, No Education Cuts!

Written by Sally Mumby-Croft

Josie Long and Darren Hayman support the occupations. All Photographs courtesy of UCLOccupation.

Since the first protest over two weeks ago, there has been something palatable in the air; occupation, occupation, occupation! Across Britain students have left the streets and occupied their University halls in protest against the outcome of Lord Browne’s report: tuition fees to rise, the abolishment of EMA’s and the suggested removal of the state funding Universities receive to aid their research and teaching budgets.

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In the face of the Coalition’s seemingly never-ending barrage of cuts targeting every section of the welfare state, there has been the inevitable attempts to label the student protests as self indulgent (though what is self indulgent about fighting to preserve access to higher education for all, in perpetuity?!). I was disappointed to see the always readable Polly Toynbee state: “Sorry Students, but you’re low in the pain pecking order” we should be avoiding the desire to turn the terrifying breadth and width of the cuts into a hierarchical system of the most deserving.

Emmy the Great dropped by UCL…

Yet the students are fighting back against charges of indulgency, one of the demands made by the UCLOccupation is for all University employees to be paid the London Living Wage. The inclusion of this demand has lead to increased support from Toynbee and her more recent article “Thatcher’s Children can lead the Class of 68 back into action” signaled a change in approach. The Students are using their platform of occupation not only to campaign against sweeping changes to the perception of Higher Education, but to join forces -as I learnt whilst visiting UCLOccupation- with other groups (NHS, Library Workers, Legal Aid etc) to protest against these draconian, unnecessary and dogmatic cuts.

Céilí Dancing

Personally, I completely support the occupations of Universities, I’ve tasted the education cuts proposed by the Coalition and the impact they had on my student body was terrible, morale was low, people questioned why they were plunging into debt when they were receiving so little in return. It made many students question the worth of their courses, which is what The Browne report wants to achieve – the commodification of learning. Education is not about financial worth and society will quickly become lacking in innovation and discussion if this thinking becomes the norm.

This is the inevitable problem when turning education into a competitive market rather than an individual choice about whether or not to further their learning. Maybe I was idealistic at what university would offer, but the sly cuts in teaching, space and access to workshops was not what I was expecting. During my second year at Goldsmiths we spent the year fighting against bigger class sizes on a third of the teachers, compounded by the loss of workshops and studio space so small, people stopped coming into the studios. Luckily for our third year, we managed to claw back studio space and instigate a system of visiting tutors, but the depth of knowledge we lost with the axed tutors was unmistakable.

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Goldsmiths was the second university I tried, I left my first in protest against their education cuts. I bring up my experiences because despite Clegg’s lame protestations, it is not only the higher fees that would put me off if I was applying now, it is the slow destruction of our higher education system. The forcing of universities to act like businesses is not working and nor should it. Education is not a marketable commodity and we need to protect it alongside our incredible welfare state (the first hospital has already been all but privatised - Andrew Lansley’s white paper is a slippery slope), why are we allowing free universal access to medical care slip through our fingers? No-one in the Cabinet paid for their higher education and they experienced the best it had and still has to offer. We need to support the student occupations, we need to support the preservation of higher education.

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I visited the UCLOccupation“>UCL occupation on Saturday and it was amazing hive of activity (as all the occupied universities will be). This weekend the Slade are mobilising art against the cuts, you can see their manifesto here. Since my visit the protestors marched again on tuesday and ran circles around the police’s attempt to kettle them or in the words of newspeak, ‘detain.’ There are many excellent accounts of what happened available across the internet or join twitter for live updates.

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Rather disappointingly UCL Lawyers have been called in to secure an injunction to evict the students, a move being instigated no doubt by all Universities currently occupied. It would be a breath of fresh air for the University bodies to support the students who fill their halls.

Do check out what events are happening at the various spaces, during my visit to UCL I caught the end of Billy Bragg, saw the rousing support of the National Union of Journalists, sat through a book reading and the tutor’s rallying support for the plight of students across Britain and had the opportunity to listen to David Wearing discussing a brief and indept history to capitalism and Dan Hind talk about the ideas contained -democratising debate via a public editorial system, removing the power from the elite- within his latest book, The Return of the Public.

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This week Slade Art School students occupied in opposition to cuts that “threaten the existence of arts and humanities education in England and Wales…we vehemently oppose the transformation of the university system into a market based model; education should be a public debate, not a private economy.” Rather brilliantly the Slade are using their space as an assembly point for all art colleges to get together and organise “non-violent direct action” against the Government’s attacks on the arts. It is worth mentioning that course that appears de rigor for politicians -the PPE- would be considered a humanitarian subject and that the people who are forcing these changes on us, had free access to University, despite being millionaires. This weekend the Slade will be hosting lectures, events and workshops to “highlight the value of intellectual and cultural exchange within art courses.” Supported by the The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, the events run from the 3rd December to Sunday 5th.

This Saturday (4th) sees a national day of action against ALL cuts proposed by the coalition and another protest with teachers, students and parents is being planned for the 9th. This was originally and remains banking crisis, a crisis of capitalism, we can negotiate a new space if we work together. The government bailed out the banks and populations across the world are paying the price. This type of capitalism continually fails as do the unchecked belief in unregulated markets. Why would we let people involved in this crisis, advise us that the best model for Universities is one based on the market??

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