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Repression in British universities is on the rise

UEA students protest

Students from the University of East Anglia protest, February 2014. Roger Blackwell under a Creative Commons Licence

On 20 November 2013, University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) students ‘staged an 'impeccable' protest’ against the DPRTE military business and arms fair held on their campus. In spite of threats and harassment the protest achieved its aim: DPRTE has moved location for the next conference. However, students have grown concerned by the university’s direct involvement with the repression.

Campaigning UWE students recently sent an open letter demanding an independent review of such repression to governors of their university. In that letter, they report, for example, that university security prioritized traffic towards the fair rather than the safety of protesting students, and that police were granted permission by the university to follow, and gather intelligence on, protesters after the demonstration ended.

UWE student activists link such an attitude to their university’s business agenda. In a message written the night of the fair, they stated that: ‘With the hosting of this [military business and arms] fair and their approval of the tripling of tuition fees, UWE management have demonstrated their priorities clearly: prioritize business of any kind even at the detriment of the health and safety of their students, and democracy.’

Such repression is a trend being felt by students across British universities. On 5 December 2013, students at the University of London occupied their university’s management office as part of a campaign demanding that outsourced workers get the same sick pay, holiday pay and pensions as in-house workers, and to protest against management’s threats to close down their student union. Their protest was brutally dispersed, and the university soon obtained a court order banning protests on campus for six months.

Similar student protests on campus have been seen in Sussex, Sheffield and Birmingham, among others. The protests have all been met with some form of repression from their university, including violence, exclusion or prosecutions. As at UWE Bristol and the University of London, these protests highlighted and denounced their universities’ business agenda, arguing that it undermines education, social justice and democracy.

Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine argues that, in its neoliberal phase, capitalism expands through crises, using opportunities such as the economic depression to push through unpopular free-market policies. These changes are then imposed by suppressing dissent through violence. It’s a trend with which student protesters in Britain are all too familiar. Indeed, the recent university-level protests manifest continued opposition against the neoliberal policies embedded in higher education reforms imposed at national level by the coalition government in 2010. It was one of the first austerity cuts to be ‘justified’ by the economic crisis.

The reforms stopped universities being subsidized and shifted the cost of education on to students, who are now saddled with debt arising from tripled tuition fees and interest rates. Those highly unpopular plans raised an unprecedented student movement, but the government rushed the reforms through and attempted to quell protest by using the kind of force not seen since the Thatcher era, such as cavalry charges into demonstrators.

The main change since the 2010 student protests is the location of dissent as universities’ management attempt to roll out neoliberal logics within ‘their’ institutions. While the 2010 repression took place in the streets, it is now taking place within universities – institutions that were historically established to enable debate free from repression, from where powers-that-be could safely be critiqued.

University-level repression of student protests undermines the core intellectual and democratic mission of such institutions. These violent reactions towards student campaigns for education, social justice and democracy, and against austerity, raises the question: is the neoliberal university still a university at all? As the manifesto of the recent ‘cops off campus’ campaign put it: ‘To threaten someone with a stick is the ultimate anti-intellectual gesture.’

Increasingly preoccupied with economic goals and lucrative business ties, universities are straying from intellectual freedom and democratic values. Instead, students are encouraged to make themselves as employable as possible. When Lord Robbins chaired the Robbins report in 1963, it was stated that universities should promote ‘the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’ and that universities ‘should be available to all who [are] qualified for them by ability and attainment’. British universities are now a far cry from this, increasingly resembling training centres with fees so high that few can realistically afford them. Little is done to prepare students facing severe unemployment and debilitating debt.

We need an education system which informs and empowers students, especially in a political climate that ignores the needs of young people and contributes to the interlocking economic, social and ecological crises. Only by supporting those students who are resisting these catastrophic changes can universities fulfil their democratic duty, and perhaps become politically relevant again.

Student campaigners at UWE Bristol ask you to support their campaign to build a safe and democratic university by signing this petition.

Benoit Dutilleul and Holly-Rae Smith

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