The University is in crisis. A vital part of the fabric of our society, universities are sites of analysis and debate, where the ideal of intellectual honesty drives us to confront difficult problems and propose rigorous solutions. They are places where thought is cultivated as a public good. In 2010, however, a new imperative emerged in higher education: universities are to compete for funding in the form of individual student fees, while precarious research funding means grants, patents, contracts and private investment have become increasingly crucial to the survival of institutions. Under these conditions everything must change. If universities are to thrive they must prioritise market position, and this means first and foremost that they must aggressively counter perceived threats to their reputation. Universities can no longer brook the slow pace of rigor, they can no longer afford the risk of research that does not promise future income, and dissent – the life blood of a vigorous intellectual community – is now to be contained, structured, moderated, and, where necessary, policed.
On the 3rd of December, this conflict of interest manifested as a conflict between police and students. Around thirty students peacefully protesting the marketisation of English universities were subject to a sustained physical assault by officers from West Midland Police, who sprayed them with CS gas, wrestled individuals to the floor, and brandished tasers in an attempt to intimidate them. The police had been called to campus by the University after a security officer alleged that they had been assaulted by students. Significantly, the University has refused to be drawn on what the precise nature of this assault may have been. The students present vigorously deny any violence against security staff, and hold the allegation to be a contrived pretext for bringing state-sanctioned violence to bear on anyone who might hinder the University’s ability to control its reputation in the year of its fiftieth anniversary. Far from a defensive measure against a handful of passive undergraduates, this was an action intended to discipline an entire community: undergraduates, post-graduates, international and home students are to be aware that if the higher education market is to be navigated, they are to be seen and not heard.
It is often said that student politics are dead. We are told that ours is an age of apathy and alienation; that the possibility of collective action has been supplanted by a morass of narcissistic self-interest. Yet on the 4th of December, when many had already returned home for the holidays, approximately one thousand students and members of staff came together outside Senate House. Gathered in numbers this campus has not seen for decades, we told the University that we will never accept police violence on our campus, that no pretext could justify their cowardly actions, that, for all of our diversity, we are a community, and that we will not be intimidated. At the end of the rally hundreds of us defied police and security and marched into the Rootes Building. Peaceful, but intent not to let the University quietly bury an unprecedented assault on students, we determined to hold part of the upper floor of the building until such a time as the University responded adequately to the charges levelled against it.
Now we find ourselves subject to a new and greater act of violence. Without any attempt at meaningful negotiation with students, the University filed for a possession order and injunction banning “occupation style protest” indefinitely for anyone involved in occupying the Rootes Building. This injunction applies to the entirety of Warwick campus, and for an indefinite amount of time. This in itself is an attempt to intimidate, divide and demoralise protesters. In doing this, the University has enacted a political enclosure of the university campus, further curtailing the ability of student groups of any kind to protest in any manner other than those sanctioned by an institution that has shown its willingness to use force to protect its interests.
Despite the fact that the occupation is now over, and future occupation has been made criminal, Warwick for Free Education will not be deterred or demoralised. An ultimatum was issued along with our original demands: if the University does not take steps toward addressing them by 6th January, it will face further protests. The University needs more than court injunctions to stop this movement. We will continue to fight against the policing of dissent and the cancerous effects of marketisation, irrespective of the legal risks. In the attempt to criminalise dissent, the University has not silenced us, but only made us more outraged, more determined, and more ready for direct action.
The need for such a struggle has never been clearer. As many members of our community will know, the Student Union building, including the SU offices and the various bars and other facilities was only granted to students on our campus as a direct result of a long period of occupations and protest. Some may also be aware of the occupations of the campus branch of Barclays Bank in the early eighties as part of a concerted and successful effort to make the University break its dependence on a financial institution that profited directly from the fascist South African Apartheid regime. Yet perhaps even those for whom this is news will recognise that, in our febrile political climate, it is necessary not only to find our voices, but to protect our right to have them heard. What the University hopes to do – silently, callowly, and in the names of the very people it will disenfranchise – is to silence those who believe their democratic relationship to their university should go further than customer satisfaction surveys. The thin end of the wedge was driven into our community a long time ago; what happened on the 3rd was a result of that same wedge being hammered harder and deeper into our campus: it must be hammered no further. The court order will not be a fatal blow to our community, but it must mark the moment where we once more conjure the energy that brought us together on the 4th and tell those who so enthusiastically capitulate with the marketisation of higher education that, despite their titles, despite their money, despite their power, this is our university.
We give management until January…
Warwick for Free Education