After a barnstorming first year – during which Warwick For Free Education (WFFE) became national news, went to court, were battled with an unprecedented High Court injunction (still outstanding), destabilised a Vice-Chancellor, forged the most left-wing environment seen at the University since the days of Red Warwick, and helped force Warwick to divest from fossil fuels – we continued to mobilise, push forward our demands with management, and inculcate a culture of struggle throughout our second year. We take a look back and reflect on everything we organised and contributed to during 2015/16.
Term 1: Our first term was dominated by the national agenda. With the first series of major higher education reforms since 2010 tabled in a green paper, we kicked off the year with a small picket outside the office of Leamington’s eminently charismatic Conservative MP, Chris White. After calling the police on us, he attempted to engage in dialogue for around 30 seconds before shutting down his office and scuttling away.
The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts – to which we are affiliated – went into overdrive to pull off a great national demo in London on November 4. We managed to achieve the second-largest contingent in the country (after Sheffield), and forged closer relations between our new and old members in the process. At the demo, clashes with police outside the Department for Business and Innovation led to hundreds of students tearing through the streets of London in a moment of unchoreographed liberation: the streets really were ours as we impulsively turned left, right, right and left, stopping traffic as we went.
Term 1 also saw the first occurrence of something which would become common for us: early-morning starts to join the picket lines. This time, we joined striking further education workers at the local Leamington campus of Warwickshire college (we would later join junior doctors and striking Warwick academics). We also supported a nationally-coordinated day of action in defence of international students on Nov. 17, and began to raise alarms over revelations that Warwick had been lobbying to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The anniversary of Dec. 3, 2014 – during which WFFE activists were sprayed with CS gas, threatened with Tasers, arrested and outrageously convicted – came and went with a small sit-in outside the Vice Chancellor’s office. We are still waiting for the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s report into the events – and for an apology from Warwick’s management – although a former member did win his law suit against the IPCC’s exoneration of one of the officers involved.
Term 2: This term was our most eventful of the year. After hosting NCAFC’s women and non-binary conference – which saw activists from Sisters Uncut, the Kurdish women’s movement and elsewhere come to campus – change was supposedly afoot, as the disgraced Nigel Thrift left his post and fled to China. A newer, younger, slicker Vice Chancellor took over: Stuart Croft. We greeted him in true WFFE style: with an occupation of the Finance Office. Years of frustration with Warwick’s management were bubbling over, and we wanted to test whether the new Croft-era would be any different to the Thrift regime.
After a disastrous ‘Question Time’ performance on his first day, Croft dropped everything during our Finance Office occupation and agreed to meet with us in the SU. We discussed our four main campaign priorities: the injunction, maintenance grant cuts, freedom of information, and the ‘counter-terrorism’ Prevent agenda, achieving some seeming concessions on each.
We continued campaigning on these four key areas and have won some significant progress on each. Plans for exempting universities from the Freedom of Information Act were dropped nationally. A student-management meeting on how Warwick interacts with Prevent was held, spawning a student-staff working group to permanently scrutinise the University’s conduct in this area. Stuart Croft publicly expressed alarm over the cuts to maintenance grants. And we hear that a proposal for scrapping the injunction will be brought to the upper echelons of the University in September.
These campaigns were run on a number of fronts: we engaged students in conversations through leafleting, published thought-pieces in student media, passed motions through the SU (around seven motions were successfully brought by WFFE members throughout the year), maintained our social media presence, did creative public actions, and held a successful rally, march and road blockade (which sparked significant consequent debate). Even during graduation our members were still agitating over the injunction.
Crucially, we spent a lot of energy building effective student-staff solidarity with elements of the main academic staff union, UCU. We held regular meetings to form a joint campaign over the higher education reforms and Prevent, something we will be continuing in the coming year. Together, the student-staff group overwhelmingly passed motions through a specially-called meeting of Assembly, the democratic body of staff on campus. Victories come much more often when staff and students work in unison.
Term 2, alongside everything else, also saw an entire week set aside for SU elections. Despite the efforts of some in the student media to paint WFFE as an isolated, hated group, our members or candidates supportive of our aims were nearly-uniformly elected, some by significant margins. We now have the most progressive SU sabb team in recent memory. This opens up the door for major victories in the year ahead.
Term 3 was, of course, much quieter, with a few small engagements with a staff strike and an open day action. Most prominently, several of our members took time out of the revision schedule to combat the reactionary NUS leave campaign; again, scoring a massive victory.
If this wasn’t enough, throughout the year we worked to support external struggles, from joining Movement for Justice’s efforts to shut down Yarl’s Wood detention centre, to supporting a NUT-UCU strike at Northampton, to organising a protest at the Israeli arms company Elbit with Birmingham Palestine Action, to attending Kurdish solidarity and SOAS Justice for Cleaners demos in London.
Naturally, such an active year took its toll on the group, and we are planning to rethink elements of our approach after we recharge over summer in light of the experiences of the last two years. With the Tory government launching attacks on everyone from students in England to women of colour in Coventry to Yemeni children, the Left is needed as much as ever. WFFE will continue to contribute to a radical movement for justice and equality here at Warwick and beyond.