Reflections on November 4th

*A piece by a new Warwick For Free Education activist reflecting on their experience of the National Demo*

It’s been 16 days since over 100 Warwick students travelled down to London to join the National Demo for Free Education & Living Grants for All. To many of us the day represented just another demonstration to add to their personal stories of direct action. Yet for some of us the day represented a realisation of the struggle towards the political objective that WFFE espouses, and an uncomfortable proximity to the stance that the state maintains towards student activism, and the tactics the police deploy in the face of our democratic right to assemble.

With an early start of 8.30am, we assembled on the piazza. The mood was amicable, friends greeted friends in the backdrop of pickets, banners and coats with red felt squares pinned on to them. Pictures were taken, and then we swiftly boarded our pre-booked coaches.

wffe

On our way, one of the SU representatives stands and gives a short speech about the position the SU has towards our participation. It was encouraging and helpful, but lined with care. They went on to say that the SU does not condone illegal action on behalf of students. If you witness illegal action please move quickly away. If you are part of any illegal action the SU then your actions do not represent the SU.

Many students on the bus brush this off; there is no cause for concern because our causes are legitimate. However some of the newer activists become quickly concerned, ingrained was an assumption that we had already committed wrongdoing, and in entering the realm of the ‘’pre-criminal’’, legal advice cards were handed out to be used upon our ‘‘arrest’’. None of us had any intention of being arrested, the mere existence of these cards, which could ultimately prove to be a helpful lifeline, is in some ways a cause for concern.

Upon arrival any concerns faded away as we were joined by other blocs; Free Education movements from Brighton to Glasgow, Anti-austerity, anti-borders, anti-fascist, anti-prevent, the LGBTQ community, those in support of refugees, socialists and communists and all our other allies rallied behind us. The mood was electric. Colourful pickets, clever placards with catchy platitudes. Out of the masses, John McDonnell rose to a stand and presented us with an inspiring reminder that:

‘’Your generation has been betrayed by this government in increases to tuition fees, in scrapping the education maintenance allowance and cuts in education. Education is a gift from one generation to another, it is not a commodity to be bought and sold.’’

Our students marched on the front lines, to a swarm of press earning their wages acting like flies bumping into one another to take the perfect shot. Natalie Bennett, Owen Jones and Aaron Bastani were all glimpsed in the crowd at one point or another as we made our way through London. The city heard our chants as we passed the Houses of Parliament, the Home Office all the way to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Boos erupted as we stood collectively outside the building that decided to scrap the maintenance grants that feed and house our students. To the individuals lining the streets to watch, the workers taking breaks to make us part of their snapchat stories and the government employees peeking through closed curtains we made our presence loud and clear.

Surrounding the peaceful actions of between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals was a heavy police presence. Especially protective of the government buildings. A heavy police presence could be seen as a sign that the government is attentive to our concerns; the actions that followed proved us wrong.

For those of you that don’t know, kettling is a police tactic for controlling large crowds in which a formation of large cordons of police officers move to contain a crowd within a limited area.  Many of the demonstrators are quite familiar with this tactic, which often keeps a group immovable for hours at a time, involves the use of, arguably excessive, force to drive back protesters who try to leave the area and often accompanied with unwarranted, indiscriminate arrests.

Understandably, most people don’t like being kettled. Being effectively detained for an undetermined amount of time is a pain if you get hungry or thirsty or need the toilet. Let’s not forget the negative effects it may have on the mental health of individuals who want to simply voice their opposition to government policy. The swift movements of the police were met with a stampede to escape, which led us into streets not allocated for our protest and not restricted of traffic. The police didn’t become any calmer, and as we dispersed we were met with chases, individuals being tackled, violent force being used to restrain some, and the distressing sight of riot vans and police helicopters.

 

Accompanying the riot helmets was consistent surveillance. Some officers held video cameras designed to collect the information of any individuals involved in the protest. This agenda to identify those participating presumes guilt, and is yet again another cause for concern. We are not criminals. We are exercising our civic duties to political expression. In this respect we march in solidarity with those who support us but would like to conceal their identities from the more repressive instruments of the state.

We organised because we want a free education system, free from regressive loans and corporate control. Free from discrimination in who is allowed to study and what we study. The protests turned violent after an escalation by the police that saw us not as the concerned citizens that we are, but as rioters who threaten public order.

Thankfully none of the Warwick students who participated were  detained. Much to the testament of the SU, the NCAFC and the organisers at WFFE, whose support is greatly appreciated. Yet as the adrenaline died down, clarification set in. By the end of the night all of us were accounted for, which cannot be said for other protesters that we marched alongside. Being detained, being questioned and the threats of trial and punishment are harrowing experiences. But the struggle continues…

What do we want?

Free Education.

When do we want it?

Now.

The Green Paper: Universities and Freedom of Information

The government’s Green Paper on higher education proposes removing universities from FOI law. The law should be strengthened instead.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is a weak instrument. Authorities who wish to conceal the darker aspects of their dealings are gifted a plethora of exemptions. If the information sought affects commercial sensitivity, ongoing investigations, personal data, international relations, effective decision making, legal proceedings, national security, ‘the economy’, or defence (and more), it falls under the category of ‘exempt’ information. The intelligence services and private sector are completely outside of the Act, and ministers can enact a ‘ministerial veto’ when all other lines of defence fail (as Cameron did for the transcript of a vital phone conversation between Blair and Bush on the eve of the Iraq War).

A savvy journalist or diligent member of the public can, however, utilise the Act to squeeze a measly residue of important information out the “complex and unwieldly beast” that is the British state, as investigative journalist Heather Brooke describes it. Her tenacious effort to uncover the expenses scandal is the most well-known example of a successful deployment of the FOI Act, but there are many others. We now know about restaurant hygiene ratings (we found out how horrific many Leamington outlets were), the number of Met police officers found guilty of racism (and how few were disciplined for it), and how many patients were being discharged in the middle of night from NHS hospitals (answer: 8,000 a week).

At Warwick, societies and student journalists have long sought to utilise the Act to gather crumbs of information from our opaque and lofty management structure; universities are notoriously obfuscatory on FOI, and Warwick is no exception. The University’s record on WhatDoTheyKnow.com, which lists publicly available FOI requests, details a litany of refusals, delays and exemptions. Fossil Free Warwick have just released a statement condemning the University’s obstinacy over their request for information on the BP Archive. A request by Campaign Against Arms Trade’s Rachel Melly, for information on the links between Warwick and weapons manufacturers, was refused the other week. I recently wrote a piece for the Warwick Globalist exposing the £11 million cost of WBS’ new base in The Shard in London. As the piece details, the University fragrantly breached guidelines on the FOIA in their initial response to the request for the lease agreement.

But we have found a few things out. The Warwick Globalist confirmed that the University spent £12,558 on the High Court injunction banning occupations and sit-ins across campus. Animal Ethics Society got access to figures on the number of tests being carried out on live animals on campus. Fossil Free Warwick discovered the structure of the University’s investment portfolio, and used some of this information to calculate how much Warwick had invested in fossil fuel companies at the time.

Given its severe limitations, the FOI Act should be strengthened. Democracy, transparency and accountability – which we supposedly adore in the West – are only possible when we know what our public institutions are doing: how decisions are being made, where money is being spent, and what deals are being struck behind closed doors. It appears uncontroversial that the public should have as much access as possible to the internal processes and end results of the institutions they pay for, and of which they are the supposed beneficiaries.

It is with dismay, then, that all students should treat the news that the government’s new Green Paper plans to exempt English universities from FOI law, bracketing our nation’s alleged bastions of free thought off in the same murky list as intelligence agencies and private corporations. This is a regression for student journalism and activism, and all those who care about how their university functions. No wonder that Warwick SU’s Education Officer and the Editor in Chief of the Boar have both condemned the proposal. And no wonder members of senior managements across England are already salivating at this opportunity for them to avoid public scrutiny.

The reason given for the recommendation is striking. The Paper doesn’t attempt to argue that the move is in the general interests of students; rather, it argues that current FOI laws put universities at a disadvantage relative to private providers. A distinct equivalence is drawn between the operations of a supposedly public body, which functions in the public interest, and private corporations, which function under the logic of the profit motive:

There are a number of requirements placed on HEFCE-funded providers which do not apply to alternative providers. Many derive from treating HEFCE-funded providers as ‘public bodies’. This is despite the fact that the income of nearly all of these providers is no longer principally from direct grant and tuition fee income is not treated as public funding. Alternative providers are not treated as public bodies. As a result there is an uneven playing field in terms of costs and responsibilities. For example, the cost to providers of being within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act is estimated at around £10m per year.”

If any more evidence was needed that this government plans to fully subordinate higher education, in form and function, under the rubric of the neo-liberal market, this is it. To eliminate the “uneven playing field” between universities and private corporations, we must stop considering universities “public bodies”. The transformation of the university into a private provider is well underway.

It’s important to view this is the context of the government’s wider attack on Freedom of Information law. Michael Gove, the dangerous Justice Secretary, is planning a “crackdown” on FOI, according to the Financial Times. Officials will be able to include “thinking time” in the costs of the request, and the ministerial veto will be strengthened. This comes on top of revelations that the government “automatically deletes all emails from its servers after three months, making life harder for those working there, but also for anyone seeking information contained on those emails.”

Campaign for Freedom of Information coordinated a letter from 140 media and campaigning bodies deploring these attempts to weaken the law.

The move to exempt universities from the Freedom of Information Act represents two pernicious trends under our current government, both of which should be the object of vitriol and campaigning by students: the shrouding of public bodies in the fog of opacity, and the corporatisation of higher education.

International Students’ Day of Solidarity Speech

*This is a transcript of a speech given at today’s rally to oppose the mistreatment, exclusion and exploitation of international students and all migrants and refugees. WFFE rallied to support migrants, and other activists did the same across the country for the NUS’s International Students’ Day of Solidarity*

day of solidarity

My name is Arianna, I am a PhD student here at Warwick. As an EU student myself, over the years I have often found my intentions questioned, whenever I campaigned for issues to do with the treatment of international students within the university and beyond. And the question has often been the same – ‘Oh but you are an EU student, why should you care? This does not concern you, YOU are not affected.’ Well, that’s exactly the point. And that’s exactly why I think it’s so important that we are here today.

When I came to the UK back in 2008, as an EU undergraduate student, my experience was incredibly easier and smoother than that of my fellow students from outside the EU. Nothing made us different, except I did not have to have my bank account and personal background scrutinised by the UK Borders’ Agency before even being allowed to step foot into the country; I did not have my biometric details taken; I did not have to queue for hours to register my details with the police when I arrived; I did not have to worry about missing a class with the fear that UKBA would be notified my attendance and that I could potentially lose my visa if I missed a certain number of classes, or I worked one hour more than what I was allowed to.

And all this was only because of the passport that I happen to carry; a pure accident of birth, that made such a difference to the way in which the British state and the university system have treated me throughout my time here.

And that’s exactly what is so absurd, and inherently unfair, about the border regime that operates within the UK higher education system, and throughout our society more broadly. Opportunities such as the ability to move freely, study, work, live and exist safely in a country come to be increasingly attached to the passports that individuals carry. And our universities reproduce these artificial and grossly unfair divisions by charging students from outside the EU double or triple the amount of tuition fees, just because they can, and because international students come to be seen – and be treated – as easy cash cows to milk to prop up our under-funded and marketised education system.

This is just plain wrong. For years now, things for international students from outside the EU coming to the UK to study have got worse and worse. They have been at the forefront of a string of attacks on the part of governments which have limited their right to access education, to remain here to work and live after completion of their studies, to bring their families over with them. Requirements to get a visa in the first place have become so restrictive that for each international student that makes it here to study, there are probably ten less lucky ones, who have not been able to make it. And things threaten to get worse and worse, with continuously new restrictions being proposed by the government that attempt to make the experience of studying here more and more a privilege for the few that can afford to buy their way through border control, rather than a right which is accessible to all.

migration-is-beautiful

And that’s what we have to stand up against. We must recognise that the attacks that our fellow international students face are the result of a regressive, xenophobic immigration agenda which seeks to close down borders, restrict freedom of movement and create essentially racist divisions within our society. Now, I believe that for too long, when protesting the mistreatment of international students at the hands of the UK government, we have fallen victim of the same divisive rhetoric that is at the root of the government’s xenophobic agenda in first place. University leaders are keen to emphasize the value that international students bring with them in terms of their economic contribution to British universities, and to the British economy; and they are keen to emphasise that international students are not really migrants, and for this reason should be treated more leniently.

Now, we must see this for what it is: a fundamentally dangerous, pernicious and divisive rhetoric, which seeks to create a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, desirable and undesirable migrants. This is a logic that we must resist, and reject. And that’s why the fight for better rights for international students need to go hand in hand – indeed, needs to be one and the same – with the fight against all border regimes, against all immigration controls, against all xenophobia and racism that operate within our society. The immigration policies of the UK government are nothing short of horrendous: migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are humiliated, locked up in detention centres, stripped of their human rights, of their right to work and exist safely; they are victimised, blamed for an economic crisis they did not cause, then exploited by that very same economic system, often left in deprivation and threatened with deportation or detention. They suffer at the hands of state violence, cast away from the public sight either left to suffer outside the UK borders, or locked inside detention centres where they are deprived of virtually all freedoms.

And this is because of the deliberate strategies of the powerful, which we see operating time and time again throughout history at times of crisis: an attempt to create divisions between the insiders and the outsiders, between us and them, between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ migrants, in an attempt to blame those who are weak for a crisis that they didn’t cause, to use fear as a mechanism of control. This is a mechanism that we must recognise whenever we see it in operation, and fight. And that’s why it’s so important that today we are here, in unity and in solidarity with all migrants who suffer at the hands of the British state, and for which things are about to get worse and worse as xenophobia and Islamophobia rise in the wake of the Paris attacks. This is the time to resist against all divisions, to fight against all racism, and to resist all borders, whenever we see them in operation – inside and outside the university. This small action today is hopefully the beginning of a much bigger wave of mobilisations. The fight is on!

Solidarity With FE Teachers: Supporting the UCU Strike

FE picket better

On the 10th of November University and College Union (UCU) members went on strike over the pay of FE teachers, pursuing their claim for an extra £1 per hour pay for all members.

Further and adult education is becoming increasingly marketised and after an announcement of further cuts in the summer the government is looking to see 300 colleges condensed and merged into just 70! This would mean that many unemployed young adults will no longer have a local college to turn to and will be forced out and robbed of the chance of further education. A chance we see as fundamental to save. In line with this FE teachers are facing pay cuts, job losses, increased workloads and ever growing class sizes. With 73.7% of the UCU voting yes for the strike it is clear that now is the time to take action and we are prepared to support FE teachers!

On Tuesday we visited our local college, the Leamington Spa campus of the Warwickshire college group, and stood in solidarity on the picket lines with the striking teachers. The teachers deemed it to be a fairly successful picket line that educated teachers, students and members of the public on the current challenges FE teachers are facing as well as showing that the UCU are not prepared to let these changes happen without a fight! And WFFE will stand in solidarity with that fight.

‘All Migrants Are Welcome Here:’ Warwick Supports the International Students’ Walkout

On November the 17th, we – as Warwick For Free Education – will be organizing a day of action  in solidarity with international students and migrants.  This will be just one of a coordinated series of mobilizations on campuses across the country, as part of the International Student Day of Action called by the NUS.  We will be engaging in a vibrant, public rally and awareness raising activities such as flyering and a photo petition.  We think this demo is particularly urgent due to the renewed attacks on international students in the form of the NHS surcharge, the scrapping of the post study work visa and broader restrictions on the rights of migrants to live and work in the UK, rental checks which will adversely impact the already most marginalized and further inhibit the access of migrants to housing, and extortionate tuition fees, increasing year on year, which render our universities only available to the more affluent across the world.

We reject this logic, and the logic that brands international students exploitable economic resources.  We reject the exclusionary policies of this Government and the complicity of our Universities in their xenophobic agenda, engaging in intrusive surveillance and attendance monitoring upon international students and acting as willing gatekeepers on behalf of the United Kingdom Border Agency.  We reject a callous agenda that has resulted in the deportations of such students as Majid Ali and Yashika Bageerathi, the former of which was deported back to a country where family members were disappeared and murdered by the state in the context of politically-motivated persecution.  We reject an agenda which has resulted in the deportations of thousands more beyond our Universities and colleges, which subjects migrants to barbaric and inhumane conditions in detention centres, which leaves refugees to risk death in a desperate attempt to breach the border rather than afford them welcome and a dignified, safe life.  This protest is framed not only in the context of the renewed attacks on international students, but also the forthcoming Immigration Bill which is set to tighten border controls and further restrict access of migrants to the plentiful resources of the UK, and entrench the xenophobic and racist narratives that have dominated through the recent crisis and continue to criminalize and legitimize the violent policing of migrant lives.

We firmly believe that our Universities, our educational system, and our societies, should be welcoming, open and inclusive to all.  We wish to express our solidarity with international students and migrants who are routinely attacked and marginalized by this Government, and to voice our absolute opposition to these attacks. We urge all students, home and international, to walk out of their classes next Tuesday and attend our rally.  It is our hope that this act of unified resistance can act as a platform from which to develop a sustained campaign to dismantle all borders to education, and ultimately to aspire to complete freedom of movement for all.  Our fight for free education is hollow if we do not strive towards this universality, and if we do not consistently attempt to intervene in the broader systemic forces which consolidate artificial national divisions to designate illegality and justify oppression on this basis.  We must strike at the root of the structures of power and material conditions that deny educational opportunities to many across the world in the first place, so embedded in legacies of colonialism and imperialism, and recognize our fight for free education as necessarily situated within and oriented towards the struggle against broader social injustices.

No one is illegal!

.day of solidarity

Some more information on the politics surrounding the day is available below:

http://www.nus.org.uk/en/news/students4migrants/

http://anticuts.com/2015/10/13/all-students-together-join-the-international-student-walkout/