WFFE’s Third Year: A Brief History

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.

foto_no_exif-3Term 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.

photo_2016-12-02_14-44-42We 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.

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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!).

19402276_949937378482596_2419729437263332815_oWe 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.

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Statute 24 campaign: context, progress so far and where we go from here

The foundation of the strength of the Statute 24 campaign has been staff-student solidarity.  After initially forging alliances in 2015 to successfully combat the university administration’s attempts to casualize academic staff through Teach Higher, we have since preserved and fortified these relationships through regular meetings, concerted efforts on campaigns against TEF, Prevent and insecure and exploitative conditions for hourly paid tutors, and lending our solidarity to strike action, staff Assemblies and pressuring Senate and Council.  The significance and reach of these alliances was embodied in our occupation of the Slate, where we explicitly called on the University to concede to the 6 demands of Warwick Anti-Casualisation’s fantastic campaign for fair teaching conditions at Warwick and ultimately won union recognition for hourly paid tutors.

Through our combined resistance as students and staff over the past few years, we have achieved significant victories that could not have been won if we had remained divided and atomized.  It has been through harnessing and further cultivating these alliances that the Statute 24 campaign has drawn strength and borne fruit – with the plans to reform the Statute successfully delayed after a series of motions of opposition were passed in departments, the Student Union and UCU; a staff Assembly occurred and overwhelmingly voted to oppose the reforms; and awareness-raising and social media campaigns, public meetings and demonstrations of strength were staged.

A key facet of the strategy to delegitimize Teach Higher was negative press – exposing the scheme for the programme of casualization that it truly was, belied by the university narratives promising an overhaul in the conditions of hourly paid staff to streamline bureaucracy and introduce more parity.  The language of ‘efficiency’ – a deceptive and ubiquitous pretext for the kind of deregulation fundamental to the neo-liberal agenda – was dominant in the rhetoric around Teach Higher, and through effectively dismantling this coded language and exposing the real nature of the scheme, we began to reclaim control over the narratives.  The same was true of the Statute 24 reforms – except that, this time, there was even less pretence from university management that this was anything but a power-grab, another flagrant attempt to shift institutional power away from workers in favour of bosses.   Locating this set of proposed reforms as an attack on academic freedom, and perhaps even more importantly as one element of a series of broad ranging assaults on the protections, job security and conditions of workers, was essential.

Through this we anchored our campaign in the ideals of protecting a vision of education as a public and social good, conceptualizing this not as an isolated campaign but a sustained resistance against damaging institutional changes within Higher Education which have presided over service and course cuts, wage suppression and unprecedented privatisation and casualization nationally and locally.  This enabled the formation of broad coalitions, and rooted the campaign in the sustained infrastructure and collective power generated by students and workers on campus in the fight back against the Higher Education reforms, maintenance grant cuts, pay cuts, Prevent, precarity, etc.  Our struggles must be broad-ranging, unifying, and robust, emboldened by a horizon of the more just, emancipatory and democratic education system we are striving towards.  We must not simply struggle against the removal of a particular Statute – but for a fundamental shift in the balance of forces within the university, a democratization of its opaque and privately-controlled structures, and fair working conditions and dignity for all staff.

With swathes of job cuts announced on campuses across the country, and perhaps soon threatening Warwick, this infrastructure and ideal – and not simply a reliance on fire-fighting which situates us always in a position of scattered retreat – will become ever-more important to ensure we continue to expand our resistance and advance forwards.  The recent inspiring victory of SOAS Justice For Workers – a complete end to casualization across all sectors of the University – should hearten us in this context, and offer a pressing moral and strategic insight into the important potentialities of organizing service as well as academic workers, uniting all sectors of the university community against the common enemy of management.

This control of narrative was one of the reasons we staged the protests on the university open days at the end of the year.  Whilst the sleek branding and glossy PR campaigns of the open days would have prospective students believe Warwick University is an enlightened, dignified and progressive institution, we know this image is false.  When students have been resituated as ‘investors’ and ‘consumers’ by disastrous neo-liberal reforms in education, we recognize threatening the illustriousness of the university’s reputation, expressed chiefly through the ‘sales pitches’ of open days, is a particularly significant point of pressure.  Indeed, it was the looming threat of open day disruption, as a culmination of sustained campaigning efforts, that eventually forced the university administration to scrap the Teach Higher plans.  Year on year we have disrupted university open days – for a variety of reasons and causes – and we realized that continuing this tradition would impact considerably the scales of calculation of management in pushing through the reforms to Statute 24, and embed the alternative narrative of a free and liberated education further into the everyday culture of campus.  Through both exerting pressure on management by interrupting their otherwise immaculate marketing strategies, raising awareness amongst parents and prospective students about the dangers and injustices of such reforms in Higher Education institutions, and reclaiming campus as a space of militancy, resistance and dissent – once a common sense of student life – we hoped to express the power and creativity of our campaign.

As such we engaged in a noise demo in the Oculus building on the first open day, specifically targeting the Why Warwick? events orchestrated by management to further their marketing ploys.  We distributed thousands of leaflets, engaged in many conversations with parents and students around the importance of opposing the reforms to Statute 24, and effectively countered their ‘sales pitch’ of league table rankings, employment statistics and satisfaction survey results.  We are students, staff, social agents, members of a collective and a community, not instruments of metrics, markets or management: both morally and strategically we believe our presence on open days is powerful and necessary.  The central position we occupied in the Oculus entailed our banners emblazoned the windows of the building for all passers-by around central campus to see, whilst our earnest chants of student-staff solidarity reverberated through the space and beyond, galvanizing attention and conversations and infusing campus with an incendiary political energy.  Later in the day we dropped a banner off Senate House, further fostering the exciting militancy that had – rather than the university’s branding – marked the first impressions of prospective students.

The following open day we engaged in a silent march around campus, after hearing rousing speeches from SU representatives, workers and activists, to symbolize the repression of free expression and dissent that would result from the reforms of Statute 24.  We donned co-ordinated clothing, released flares, distributed flyers, dropped banners and marched through various buildings key to the university’s image and reputation.  At the end of the march we tore the tape from our mouths, entered the Oculus building then marched to central campus in a flurry of flares, chants and vibrancy, unshackled from inhibitions and constraints on free thought and expression, and unleashing finally and fully our collective strength.  We again garnered much attention, with all of campus aflame with our narrative, our actions embodying the significance of free expression and dissent in a context where those principles are under threat.  This ended the term’s campaign on an empowering note which would signal things to come in the new academic year.  Despite people being bound up with exams, lower numbers than we might have hoped on the actions, and the end-of-final-term-political-inertia setting in, these actions were a success, and set a precedent for the scope and escalation of resistance in the new term.

It is important that we are not recuperated by, nor tether ourselves to, the bureaucratic machinations of the Senate and Council as we enter this new cycle of struggle.  As discussed in a previous blog post, there has been some opposition to the reforms by members of Senate, and under pressure from concerted student-staff campaigning changes have been made to the proposed reforms, with the amendments under review by an internally formed working group.  Another Senate meeting has since passed, and it appears still that little has changed, with the elucidation of the proposed amendments to the reforms pushed back to the Senate meeting in October.

We must be vigilant, maintaining pressure and not letting up with our actions until these proposed reforms are thoroughly defeated.  Such tactics of postponement and tokenistic review are repeated time and time by such formal bureaucratic committees: adjust the proposals largely superficially and cosmetically so as to appear responsive to the democratic demands of trade unions, student unions and the pressure of activists, thus placating these efforts and jamming them in lumbering processes of prolonged tinkering until the pressure subsides.  Again, in this context of obfuscation, we must be clear in our narratives: no superficial alterations or accommodations of ‘stakeholder concerns’ can realign these reforms in the collective interests of students and staff.  As with policies such as TEF and Prevent, these reforms to Statute 24 are fundamentally damaging, intrinsically designed to attack the rights of workers.  These vague ‘working groups’ and opaque bureaucratic procedures are located entirely on the terms of management, and we should not be taken in by them – our opposition to the reform of Statute 24 at the behest of management must be firm and absolute.

As such, the horizon of struggle is clear: we must continue to pressure Senate and Council to oppose the reforms outright, as the motions passed in numerous democratic forums and departments within the university mandate.  We have won concessions and delayed the implementation of the reforms, but we have not yet won.  Warwick UCU have recently passed a motion to consider the potentialities of industrial action against the reforms to Statute 24 – this is incredibly significant and a development we wholeheartedly support, particularly as the power of trade unions has been dramatically enfeebled by neo-liberal reforms and this would signal the expansion of trade union resistance beyond narrow pay disputes.  Alongside agitating for such industrial action to occur if necessary, we must continue to broaden and strengthen alliances and the reach of our campaign, pursue a series of creative stunts, demonstrations and militant actions to maintain pressure, and convince broader layers of campus of the necessity of opposing these reforms through forums, public meetings, open letters, flyering etc.

We must do so with optimism, acknowledging that victory is possible, that the forward march of casualization and marketization is not inevitable and we can develop the collective power to resist and overcome.  We must do so with confidence, expanding the infrastructures of struggle we have already formed, taking stock of our previous victories and drawing inspiration from them.  We must do so with hope, that a different kind of education and society is necessary and within our power to enact together.