The Failure of University Democracy

This speech was first given by Callum Cant at the Warwick Protest Summit, run by the Warwick Centre for Human Rights on Thursday 12th March.


The university purports to support democracy. This is not true.

During occupation negotiations they told us to use democratic channels – and yet the highest forms of student and staff representation are treated with absolute contempt by university management.  To focus only on our students union, we democratically support free education, a better pay deal for staff, a more democratic university structure, lower living costs on campus, and have expressed no confidence for Sir Nigel Thrift. These are all policies supported by a democratic majority. And what have the university done in response? Not much. Active campaigns which follow the structures the university advocates end up ignored and frustrated – look at Fossil Free, who stood outside earlier demanding to be heard.

The survey responses are clear. They overwhelmingly express a general understanding that the university is in crisis. Management, and the power structures of the university as a whole, have presided over a collapse of democratic legitimacy. Ideas with mass support are clearly being ignored, and this situation cannot be allowed to continue. When the normal function of the university becomes authoritarian and damaging to the very community that supports it, that functioning must not go unchallenged.

This is why protests erupt. We – and by we I mean our generation, our organisation and our campus – feel that protesting is the only way we can achieve anything. 1000 came to the demo on December the 4th, in an unprecedented display of political will. If the university wants to move beyond this impasse they should listen to the democratic structures of our community – primarily student and staff unions – and to act on that basis.

And if they continue trying to ignore us, we will be forced to continue taking action which they cannot ignore.

This is the logic behind disruptive protest.

It is a last resort which emerges only in response to the failure of other mediating channels. As a result, we absolutely reaffirm the right of the disempowered to disrupt the process which disempower and damage them. As we have explored, we have no democratic power. But alongside this, the continuing function of the university is hurting us. Our souls and bodies are subject not only to the immediate violence of December 3rd, but also slower and more insidious forms of violence, such as an average debt burden of £44,000 upon graduation. The students of Warwick university are all victims of this economic violence, which sells our future short in order to dispossess us – and this is not even to mention in depth the structural oppression faced by many groups on campus, and the many other facets of the ‘Free Education’ slogan.

That said, our objective is not to stop education functioning. As we understand it, our disruption works to stop the university and government doing far greater damage to the function of education. Look at the movements which have shaped our history: if the victims of an unjust systems had never stood up contested that status quo the world would be much worse as a result.

We think that the events of last December have to be understood in the context of UK Higher Education as a whole. The introduction of a neoliberal agenda has fundamentally changed the way in which universities work. This environment has led to dissenting students and staff facing extreme repression.

Kettling, assault, arrest, disciplinary procedures, injunctions and the like have become a normal part of dealing with protest on campus. There is an assault on the right to protest taking place on a wide scale as a direct consequence of a vicious programme which seeks to turn education into a business, students into employable graduates, and the police into the paramilitary enforcers of passivity.

Free Education means more than just abolishing tuition fees – it means liberating the process of education from structures which seek to co-opt it for economic ends – ends that benefit a small minority at the cost of the huge majority. We want our actions to be understood within this wider context, and to argue that partial reform will not provide a solution – we need a systemic change.

The full summit video is below. 

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