Warwick For Free Education (WFFE) emerged from an earlier group, Protect the Public University (PPU), in October 2014. Flying into national headlines only two months after our formation, when police violently broke up a sit-in at Senate House with CS gas and Tasers, we led an 8-day occupation of the Rootes Building in December 2014, brought the previous Vice Chancellor, Nigel Thrift, into widespread disrepute, and involved ourselves in actions, campaigns and solidarity work from detention centre demonstrations to picket lines to anti-fascist mobilisations. You can find a history of WFFE’s first and second years here and here. Now, we lay down a short summary of a similarly explosive third year.
Term 1: Facing an ascendant far-right and conservative backlash nationally and globally, we started the year on the attack. Jack Hadfield, a far-right student with links to the fascist Alt-Right, put himself forward for the October elections to the SU’s Development Executive. We published a widely-read blog exposing some of his racist, sexists pronouncements. Hadfield writes for the far-right site, Breitbart, has described feminism as a “cancer”, and wrote a creepy article called “campus crazies”, mocking the body weight of women’s officers in the UK. Hadfield had also ‘liked’ posts on Facebook which joked about “slapping” women’s “uppity little asses down” and which celebrated far-right gangs beating up refugee children in Sweden, and had also argued that the horrific racist incident on campus in April 2015 was a hoax. Hadfield lost the election.
We spent the first few weeks of term on two things: recruitment and selection of campaign priorities. We also helped the SU mobilise for the national demonstration for free education in London in November 19. We headed up the organising of the Disorientation day, which brought together several other liberation and activists groups on campus, including Pride, Anti-Sexism Society, Enable and Anti-Racism Society. Backed by the SU, Disorientation featured talks on various issues and campaigns on campus. We had lunch at the Allotment, and were addressed by Shelly Asquith of the NUS in the evening.
After introducing several new activists into the organisation, extensive internal discussions resulted in three priorities for the year ahead: migrant solidarity work, defeating the government’s destructive higher education reforms, and defending the right to protest – including continuing our efforts to scrap the authoritarian High Court injunction against occupations. Running through all these was a commitment to student-staff solidarity efforts.
We brought the latter two of these priorities together in spectacular style in December, when we occupied the entirety of a huge brand new corporate conference facility, the Slate. We demanded that the University opt-out of the Teaching Excellence Framework, part of the state-imposed marketisation of the sector, drop the injunction, apologise for the police violence of Dec 3, 2014, and agree to Warwick Anti-Casualisation’s six demands around work casualisation for hourly-paid tutors.
The occupation was a massive success, with hundreds of students passing through the luxury facility – replete with an industrial kitchen, multi-room speaker system and eight projectors – to hear talks on free education, the history of activism at Warwick, Prevent, decolonising the curriculum, direct action, evictions in Jakarta and more. There were film screenings, workshops, presentations and meetings.
Our tactics caused serious financial disruption to the University, forcing lucrative corporate conferences to be cancelled and – bolstered by an excellent supportive sabbatical team at the SU – driving management to the negotiating table. After two weeks of controlling the entire building and turning it into a transformative space, we won significant concessions and were out just before Christmas. The injunction was scrapped, a major victory for the legitimacy of the time-honoured tactic of student occupations. Warwick agreed to implement a recognition agreement for hourly-paid tutors, allowing them to be represented by Warwick UCU, the academic staff union. The VC, Stuart Croft, declared his “deep regret” over the University’s actions in December 2014, which had caused, he said, “enormous upset across our community”. Croft also wrote a scathing letter in the Times Higher Education declaring that the government had universities “over a barrel” with the TEF, which has been cited several times as evidence of university opposition to the government’s plans.
Term 2: Our group expanded greatly during and following the occupation. Two campaigns dominated the second term: the boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS), and the SU elections. The former, called by the NUS and National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC, to which we are affiliated), was an attempt to create an industrial strategy to leverage the government over its plans to raise fees, privatise higher education and impose arbitrary, market-driven metrics on the sector. The SU did most of the heavy lifting for the campaign, and successfully pushed participation in the survey down from 81% to 57%, whilst we supported with some grassroots engagement and the occasional publicity stunt. The boycott itself was received in the national press as a success for students, and won some concessions from the government. We agree with NCAFC that it ought to be extended for another year at least, particularly as Labour’s stomping performance in the General Election on a free education platform has significantly shifted the national conversation around fees and higher education (thanks, in no small part, we add, to years of work by student activists). The SU elections resulted in further victories for WFFE. A core member, Hope Worsdale, successfully ran for President in a heated campaign against the chair of the Tory society. Emotions ran high on all sides throughout the campaign, and we held some internal reflective discussions once the dust had settled regarding how we had conducted ourselves as a group. All in all, however, we continued to get legitimacy from the student population for our actions and politics.
Term 3: Expecting that most of our activities were finished for the year, some of our activists focused on supporting Corbyn’s Labour during the General Election in Leamington and Coventry, helping Jim Cunningham and Matt Western sail to victory (we picketed the old Leamington Tory MP’s office in 2015 – good riddance!).
We were shocked out of our complacency, however, when management dropped a bomb shell: they were trying to gut key employment protections for academic staff, imperilling academic freedom and job security across the University. We launched a campaign to save Statute 24 in support of the staff union, UCU. Revelations that Warwick had planned to dismiss politically active staff in the late 1960s – with at least one more recent case in 2014 – gave a serious urgency to the campaign. We passed a motion on the issue through an SU Referenda and held a silent march across campus during the Open Day and disrupted the central Oculus building, taking our message to hundreds of prospective students and contributing to management pushing its decision on Statute 24 back until next year. This campaign will continue to be a major priority for us in the coming year.
The year was littered with other events: we held extensive discussions with an Indian student leader, Shehla Rashid, about the crisis in Indian universities, showed solidarity at staff meetings, joined protests on campus against the Muslim ban, held discussions on the vision for a National Education Service, and helped fill coaches to demonstrations against the Yarl’s Wood migrant detention centre.
We continue to play a vital role in campus life, politicising events, driving forward our ideas, intervening in elections, criticising and fighting management malfeasance, and mobilising students in support of national struggles. Three years down: here’s to the next three.