Direct action gets the goods! A report from our meeting with VC Stuart Croft

On Thursday 4th February, a group of Warwick For Free Education activists staged a noise demo inside the finance office of University House, in protest against the scrapping of maintenance grants. These maintenance grants are used by the million poorest students across the country, including thousands of Warwick students. The cutting of grants and their conversion to loans are symptomatic of the wider marketization of public education, in which university managements are complicit, and against which we seek to protest. Our demand to the University is that they publicly oppose the scrapping of maintenance grants, and use their position within the Russell Group to lobby other institutions to do the same, and to put pressure on the government to reverse the cuts. Alongside this, in line with our vision of free, democratic and liberated education, we demand: that the university lifts the repressive, indefinite injunction which bans occupation-style protest across the whole of campus; that the university reverses its anti-democratic position on being exempt from the Freedom Of Information (FOI) Act; and that the university implements absolute minimal compliance and full transparency over the government’s racist and Islamophobic Prevent agenda.

The noise demo on Thursday followed an extremely disappointing Vice Chancellor’s Question Time last Monday, at which questions were asked regarding all of these demands. The new VC repeatedly evaded questions and refused to give clear answers on almost everything; the one exception being that he affirmed the University had “no plans” to lift the injunction. This was an unacceptable response to these fundamentally important issues, and demonstrated very little will to properly engage with the student voice. When university managements behave in this way, we are left with no choice but to use direct action and disruptive tactics to drive forward our just and legitimate demands.

As a direct result of this noise demo, we were able to force the Vice Chancellor to meet with us that afternoon to discuss our demands. You can listen to a full audio recording of this meeting here.

We must first make it clear that none of our demands were met outright, exactly as we had expected. As such, it is unequivocal that we will continue to protest until these demands (and more) are realised, in whichever way we see fit. However, through this meeting we were able to get the VC to make some key pledges around our demands, which we see as small but significant victories for our direct action, as well as a foundation upon which we can build for further change.

MAINTENANCE GRANTS:

Our meeting with Croft began with a discussion surrounding our first demand: that the University publicly oppose the cuts to maintenance grants, and lobby the Russell Group to pressure the government to reinstate them.

These grants are crucial for the poorest students, and the introduction of loans as an alternative is a blatantly ideological move to extend and perpetuate debt culture and wealth polarisation within society. The decision to scrap grants was forced through Parliament undemocratically, with only 18 MPs taking 90 minutes to reach an outcome. The feelings of students nationwide was made evident by the incredible blockade of Westminster Bridge a few days after.

Croft stated that he is “really worried” about the grants cuts, having been on the maximum grant himself when studying. He added, however, that for the University to take an official position on the issue, and for him to feel more comfortable voicing his concerns publicly, a motion would have to be proposed to Senate and then navigated through various bureaucratic procedures. Croft claimed he would be unable to propose such a motion due to his position as Chair of Senate, but suggested there were some sympathetic voices on the committee. Three SU Sabbatical Officers sit on Senate, and it is being looked into whether or not there is still time for them to submit a motion on maintenance grants to be considered at the next Senate meeting (March 8).

Nevertheless, Croft was willing to offer us something concrete – he pledged to invite us to write a piece on maintenance grants for his blog, which would then be distributed via email, unedited, to the entire student body.

THE INJUNCTION:

Our second demand made to the Vice Chancellor was for the University to lift the injunction against occupation-style protests on campus.

The indefinite injunction, put in place last year following the events of December 3, infringes on the rights of all students to protest on campus, and is unprecedented and anti-democratic. Occupations at Warwick have historically been an integral and successful method of dissent. They have played a key role in the struggle for the SU building, enabled Warwick students to voice their opposition to international student fees in 1979, and pushed the University to divest from apartheid-linked shares and boycott of Barclays (then heavily involved with the white supremacist regime of South Africa). The University chose to pay £12,000 for the injunction, rather than engage with the legitimate grievances of the occupiers, and to this day they have not apologised for both the way in which Warwick Security were complicit in the police violence against students, or the way in which Nigel Thrift abused his power to one-sidedly frame the debate as in his public statements.

While the Vice Chancellor seemed open to the possibility that the University may, at some point, consider apologising for the way in which it handled the police violence of December 3, and was keen to hear how we might want that apology expressed, he did not make any pledges to lift the injunction. Rather, he said that he needed to hear other voices and opinions on this issue, following which he would communicate with WFFE – through the Sabbatical Officers – with regard to what progress was taking place. While he refused to give us any time scale for when these discussions would occur, he did seem to acknowledge our assertion that we will continue to protest and disrupt the University until the injunction is lifted.

  

FOI REQUESTS:

We also demanded that the University reverse its lobbying to be exempt from Freedom of Information requests, and in turn lobby for private universities who are currently excluded from FOI requests to be included as well.

FOI requests are essential to our notion of a free and democratic university. Their removal would result in a significant reduction in the transparency, accountability and democracy of University structures. They are regularly used by student journalists and activists, and last year WFFE revealed through a FOI request that 241 staff at Warwick weren’t being paid the living wage.

Croft responded to our demand by saying that, in order for private providers to be included in FOI requests, the legislation itself would need to be changed, since it was originally set up for the public sector. He also questioned the ability of the Russell Group to press for minimal change on this issue, attempting to shift responsibility away from himself, the University, and Russell Group, and onto the government. One has to ask: if the Russell Group has so little power over the issue, why are they lobbying to be exempt from the FOIA? This proposed change would only impact the higher education sector; it therefore seems highly plausible that any public position taken by one of the primary lobbying groups for British higher education would carry considerable weight.

However, if it were the position of the University to remain included in FOI requests, Croft said he would take this to a future Russell Group meeting. Since the consultation period is now passed and the Russell Group has spoken, he said we will need to wait until the government responds to the consultation of the HE Paper until it can speak again.

In order to make the demand to remain included in FOI requests the official stance of the University will need to be debated in Senate – which led us to discuss the problem of student representation on Senate, as well as the huge lack of transparency when it comes to University committee meetings, as highlighted by our Postgraduate Officer. Consequently, in order to make Warwick more transparent and the committee structure less cumbersome, Croft pledged to carry out a transparency review between now and the summer. This would also include a review of student representation on Council and Senate. Given that there has been little change in the level of student representation on committees since the 1970s, this is a significant opportunity.

PREVENT:

The fourth demand of our action regarded the government’s “counter-terrorism” ‘Prevent’ programme. Our demand is that Warwick follow a policy of “minimal compliance”: only carrying out those duties under ‘Prevent’ which are statutorily required of the University. We also demand full transparency with respect to all the University’s interactions with Prevent.  We further demand that the University publicly acknowledges and supports the University College Union’s call to boycott Prevent.  This union represents the majority of academic workers on campus and its democratic voice should be respected.  

Prevent is a blatantly racist and Islamophobic programme which encourages invasive profiling of students by turning our staff members into spies. Furthermore, it is used as a sinister tool to monitor student activism and those who seek to defy or oppose the government. Part of the problem with Prevent is that the criteria and the process through which it acts are shrouded in bureaucratic opacity, and the programme thus operates in incredibly undemocratic ways.

We know that numerous members of University Senate, have spoken out against Prevent. Stuart Croft said that as Prevent is part of the law, he does not envisage any way in which the University can boycott it, but he was interested in hearing our definition of “minimum compliance,” in order to explore how the University could adopt this. As such, it was agreed that in collaboration with our Welfare & Campaigns Officer (Luke Pilot), a report would be produced detailing the minimum requirement of universities with regards to Prevent that would be presented to the VC. On the subject of transparency, we forced the VC to pledge that the University will hold an open consultation on Prevent that all staff and students can attend to find out exactly how the University is interacting with it. We pushed for the VC to make this happen before the end of term, and will be following up closely to ensure this pledge materialises.

For us, this meeting has truly demonstrated the power of direct action and grassroots student campaigning. Whilst the outcomes of the meeting and the pledges that we secured are not nearly sufficient – and we are under no illusions about that – they represent significant victories and at least some progress towards our vision of a free, liberated and democratic university. Despite the fact that a surprisingly positive dialogue with the Vice Chancellor has been initiated, we will not be satisfied until the pledges he made are acted upon. Furthermore, there is no doubt that we will continue to organise and protest until our full demands are won. Whilst we celebrate the hugely successful action that took place last week, we will not be complacent – there is still a long way to go in the fight for free education. But it is a fight that we cannot and will not give up on.

Watch this space for more action coming soon….

EVENT: Debt and the Public University

***What happens in America does not stay in America; or, US-style student debt – coming to a banker’s screen near you***

11 June,  1600-1730 in IMC 0.02

This roundtable will highlight the significance of debt in reshaping the priorities and direction of higher education. Reflecting on differences and continuities between the UK and US sectors, IAS Visiting Fellow Joshua Clover will discuss his experience organizing resistance to student debt-loads in California and examine the case for loan default as a principal tactic in the broader struggle against a neoliberal regime of debt discipline. The event will be podcast; all are welcome.

Featuring:

Joshua Clover (University of California, Davis)
Oliver Davis (French)
Lauren Tooker (Politics)
Myka Tucker-Abramson (English)
Jonathan Vickery (Cultural Policy Studies)
Members of Warwick Free Education

And hosted by the Instate for Advanced Studies.

Debt-June 11

Leamington Anti-Austerity Meeting – 23rd May

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Over the next five years we are facing £30 billion of cuts and austerity.

We need to support each other against the impact of the cuts and organise resistance to them on a long term, local basis.

That’s why Warwick and Leamington Green party and Warwick for Free Education are coming together to call a meeting to discuss what we can do.

It will be at Midday Sat 23rd at the Coffee Box Cafe in Leamington.

If you represent an organisation and want to be formally involved in organising and mobilising for the meeting please comment or send us a message on social media.

Announcing: Term 3 Public Meeting

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Warwick for Free Education are hosting a public meeting at the start of Term 3.

The goal of the meeting is to bring together a broad range of free education supporters from across the Warwick community (and further abroad). We want to welcome everyone: students, staff, long time WFFE-ers, and people who’ve never been involved before.

Please spread this information in your departments/friend groups and so on.

Facebook event

“Monday 27th April (week 2, term 3) // 5.30pm // Room TBC
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During the events of Cops off Campus and the Rootes Occupation in December, Free Ed activists presented a series of demands which were unilaterally rejected by university management. Not only did university management refuse to engage with or support students in the wake of unprecedented circumstances, they also purchased a drastic injunction effectively banning all subsequent occupation-style protests on campus in an attempt to yet further confine and delegitimize opposition and dissent at Warwick Ltd.

On Thursday 12th March, WFFE engaged in an independent summit on protest which was organised in response to the events that occurred on campus in December. We took part in order not only to defend the right to protest, but to emphasise the necessity of the struggle to free education, and challenge representatives from university management and West Mids police on the violent and repressive measures undertaken at their hands in response to dissent on campus.

Footage of the summit can be found here: https://youtu.be/2XMVCkPWfK4

The summit was a powerful expression for WFFE, and we have a lot to discuss following a successful Spring term and the great outcome at the summit and subsequent sit-in.

Whilst our weekly meetings are open-attendance, this meeting in particular is especially important in order to discuss and reflect on our trajectory, and formulate new demands and plans for the Summer term and beyond. Come along combabes!”

Warwick 3 to Face Four Day Trial on 7- 10 of July

solidarity cut

Today marked the preliminary hearing for the ‘Warwick 3’.

We pled not guilty to the charges, and our trial date was finalized. We will face a four day trial from the 7th to the 10th of July. Our previous bail conditions, preventing us from contacting each other and prohibiting us from going to campus have thankfully now been revoked.

The solidarity expressed by Warwick For Free Education was phenomenal and inspiring. We are grateful to our comrades who came out today, to those of you who have supported us up until this point and those of you who continue to support us.

Despite our charges we must all struggle together, to fight for education that is free, not just financially but socially.

At Least 241 Below Living Wage at Warwick

Yesterday, we posted a blog detailing why the minimum wage is a poverty wage and explaining how many people employed on a minimum wage are not able to cover the basis costs of living.

Shockingly, this is also the case on Warwick University Campus. A recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that at least 241 workers who have been employed on campus for 6 months or more are not paid the living wage. This puts us a long way into the shameful group of 39 UK universities who have more than 100 staff on less than the living wage.

In their response to the FOI the University said that they “do not hold the ‘living wage’ as a benchmark for fair pay”. This is a betrayal of those low paid staff who allow the university to function on an everyday basis.

They also said that last year they paid a bonus to all full time staff who fell below the living wage to bring them above living wage. However, we need to make it totally clear that this is a completely insufficient measure which allows them to cheat many workers out of the pay they need to live and which perpetuates damaging employment practices.

The living wage is not only applicable to full time work – it is meant to cover all wage labour. If student employees are being paid a poverty wage on a part time basis as they attempt to cover the costs of their degree that is simply unacceptable, particularly when it is their own university who are doing so.

It is also obvious that the full time/part time division is vulnerable to deliberate confusion. For example, we know that many cleaners at the university who work ‘part time’ are actually employed 5 days a week for the hours of a ‘full time’ member of staff. This is because they have to sign one ‘part time’ contract for the morning shift, and another ‘part time’ contract for the afternoon shift. Not only does this deprive them of the benefits and protections to which they have a legal right, it also means that they will not have been paid this bonus, and therefore may have remained on the minimum wage – or, to put it more truthfully, a poverty wage. At this point, though, we have no clarification if the university counts cleaners in the 241 figure, as their response did not fully detail the state of low pay amongst external contractors. We have to understand that the 241 figure may indeed be a gross underestimate.

Hourly paid teaching staff are also not counted within the 241 figure, even though they earn less than the minimum wage in many departments, because they are paid for the hour they teach and not the hours they prepare. The university does not consider the preparation they do ‘work’, and as a result hourly paid staff are meant to earn above the living wage – but imagine a seminar on Kant where the tutor hadn’t read Kant. These staff are forced to put themselves below the living wage by working extra time unpaid to prepare if they want to provide any kind of reasonable teaching. Not only are they below the living wage, but in many cases they are below the minimum wage. They are actually paid a sub-poverty wage.

This highlights one clear fact: a devious calculation of who is full time and who is part time is in the university’s interest, and this 241 figure may be far from the full reality of low pay at the university. By paying a living wage ‘bonus’ and not recognising all workers and all hours worked the university can muck about with the figures and exclude many members of staff, like cleaners and hourly paid teachers, from that bonus.

A bonus is, therefore, totally insufficient.  Sir ‘No Confidence’ Nigel Thrift is paid £348,000 a year, whilst literally hundreds of staff are not paid enough to cover the basic cost of living. This is not an abstract disgrace which a few student activists are getting upset about. This shows unequivocally that the university is engaged in the creation of huge wealth inequality and the impoverishment of essential support staff in order to maximise financial surplus (read: profit).

There is no solution to this apart from the immediate and comprehensive raising of all wages paid by the university, its wholly owned subsidiary companies (like Warwick Retail), and its outsourcing partners to the living wage.

No bullshit bonuses which cheat staff out of essential pay – we need the living wage for every hour worked.

This is not an extraordinary demand. Cambridge, Kings, SOAS, UCL, Birmingham, LSE, Oxford, Exeter and many more universities are already living wage employers. And following the payment of the living wage, we need to tie together the pay of the highest and lowest paid member of staff, so that we can never again reach the stage where some executives swan about in chauffer driven jaguars whilst others are not paid enough to live on.

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The Warwick For Free Education Pay Day Party, held to highlight the day that Nigel Thrift earned more in 2015 than the lowest paid member of staff does in the whole year (it was the 14th of January)

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