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….

HAPPENING NOW! Students shutting down finance office in protest against grants cuts!

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We are here today to protest the cuts to maintenance grants and demand that the University stands in public opposition to the new loan system. These cuts will adversely affect the poorest and most marginalised students, and are sure to only entrench deeper inequality across society.

By replacing maintenance grants with loans, the poorest students – previously recipients of largest grants – are forced to take on the most expensive loans, effectively paying back more than their richer counterparts. Poorer graduates will be indebted for longer.

We firmly reject this system, and demand that our University does the same, by way of declaring public opposition to the scrapping of maintenance grants. The student body has already made its opinion known, with an overwhelmingly positive vote during the ‘All Student Meeting,’ in favour of supporting maintenance grants.

It took 18 MP’s 90 minutes to vote in favour of converting maintenance grants to loans. Our University should firmly oppose this behaviour and political system, if it is intent on safeguarding democracy. In the latest Warwick Question Time our new Vice Chancellor, Stuart Croft, after being asked about maintenance grants appealed vaguely to ‘discussion’, creation of committees and passing a motion through University Council. We believe that our University should not hesitate to stand up for the rights of its students, and utilise Russell Group’s Lobbying Power in order to demand and secure a better future for students, especially those who are most vulnerable. Instead, our VC chose not to acknowledge Russell Group’s ability to petition the government and protect students.
We also see the wider problems in higher education and our university, including FOI requests, the injunction imposed on student protests at Warwick, and the racist Prevent agenda.

The government’s Green Paper proposes an assault on higher education, with numerous reforms including University exemption from FOI requests. FOI’s at Warwick have revealed ‘241 staff being paid below living wage,’ amongst other worrying facts, and as such represent transparency and accountability mandatory for the University to be a fair place for student and staff alike. At the same question time, our Vice Chancellor said that FOI’s cost too much money and allowed for alternative education institutions to ‘snap up’ top degrees and top candidates. We demand that our University fights the government Green Paper reforms to ensure it remains open and transparent.

We believe that the injunction against occupation style protests infringes on our right to properly protest on campus, as occupation style protests are an integral and historically successful method of dissent. Stuart Croft made vague reference to nebulous ‘violence’, whilst we in turn demand that the University apologises for its violent actions against students, and lifts the injunction, allowing us to campaign against the structural violence inherent within the world today.

The Government’s Counter Terrorism Programme, Prevent is a racist, Islamophobic and ineffective piece of legislation. We demand that the University rally against this. We understand Croft’s adherence to the ‘law’, but equally the University must recognize this legislation as dangerous, prejudiced and unjust. We demand that Warwick must reject Prevent to the full extent of its capacities.

We come here today to protest for the rights of a free and open education. To oppose the scrapping of maintenance grants, and the inequality that entails. To oppose the scrapping of FOI’s and the opacity and marketization of the University this promotes. To oppose the current injunction against occupations so that we may protest freely, and to oppose the racist and bigoted agenda of Prevent.

We come here today to disrupt the finance office. This neo-liberal organ at the heart of the university reflects the ongoing neoliberal austerity programme that further immiserates and attacks not only students, but also vulnerable people from all around the UK. We must reject the programme of cuts of which maintenance grants are one small but significant part. The finance office is complicit in these cuts, complicit in the deterioration of our University into a mere business, and must be interrupted. We disrupt because of the collapse of accountability in our university, and the diminished efficacy of democratic channels. At this stage, disruption is our only option in order to defend ourselves from structural exploitation.

We reject the idea that a termly question time with the Vice-Chancellor be the extent of students’ democratic engagement and influence within the University; an event where we are given no straight answers but one, that decisions must navigate the endless bureaucracy that is the management structure of this institution; a structure in which University management, whose interests within the neoliberal university are contrary to that of students, decide on the ‘best course of action’ on their students’ behalf. So we have come to the finance office, right beside the VC’s office to push for a meaningful dialogue that occurs on our terms, which genuinely engages with the gravity of our concerns and addresses the urgency of the situation.

We will not sit idly by as University bigwigs have conversations in committees, putting their interests above our education and our futures, and are complicit in the dismantling of public higher education.

The demonstration in London two weeks ago showed that if you scrap our grants, we will shut down your bridges. Now, in the finance office, a space that does nothing for students, we are saying once again, if you are complicit in the scrapping of our grants and the grants for future generations who desperately need it, then we will protest and disrupt you.

From A-Z to Counter-Power

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This article by Callum Cant is a response to Shelly Asquith’s article on A-B marches, and was originally published by Plan C. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) is a democratic student organisation, established in 2010, that seeks to co-ordinate a militant Free Education movement based on the activity of grass roots organisations. They called the 10,000 strong demo on November 19th in 2014, have called another demo for Nov 4th 2015. They have also voted to organise a ‘student strike’ in the coming years.

If we want to deal with the questions of strategy facing the student left then we have to begin from a position of failure. Almost everyone on the left accepts that we are facing a collective failure of dramatic proportions. Regardless of what students have done, in an isolated sense, since 2010, we can’t escape the general fate of the anticapitalist movement. But failure also affords opportunity: it gives us a chance to go back and examine the underlying assumptions that we’ve relied on in the past – and in particular to address the way in which these assumptions are detached from our current material conditions. From a position of what could justifiably be called mass depression, there is an opportunity to think our way through our conditions in a way that opens up the possibility of redemption.

With this in mind, I want to challenge our collective understanding of what escalation is, and to treat Shelly’s recent article on A-B marches as representative of a more general attitude. Within the student movement more broadly, there seems to be a general confusion about what it means for a struggle to escalate. Given the political horizon facing the democratic organisations of the student left, like the NCAFC, consists primarily of cuts to living grants, the privatisation of student debt and tuition fee rises, it is of paramount important that we understand how we will escalate and win.

“Few people see ‘A to B’ as our be all and end all; I am in favour of A to B to C to D (or even Z if you have the energy!). A march with an occupation here, a roadblock there; a series of strikes and social media blockades. None of these are mutually exclusive – let’s do it all!”

The idea of escalation Shelly proposes here – of an A-Z linear process – is not unique. In fact, I think its is something like the basic assumption of much of the student movement. The idea is that escalation means a linear increase of action ‘intensity’ towards something like a revolutionary crisis. In comparison to the ‘social peace’ logic of hegemonic politics, counter-hegemonic escalation is envisioned as an ever increasing degree of agitation and conflict. A diversity of tactics then comes to mean operating at multiple points along this line at the same time, and the whole of political action in rendered relative to one A-Z dimension. From this position, the purpose of strategy is to facilitate movement through this dimension. Our long term vision – on the few occasions when it escapes reactive short-termism – is just planning how to move down the line.

This idea of escalation fails on a number of grounds, but the most important of these is, I think, its failure to propose any concrete idea of collective agency beyond direct action. If escalation is simply an escalation in the intensity of direct action then our entire politics becomes orientated around making the next action bigger, louder and more confrontational than the one before it. We become committed to agitation, rather than a broader project.

We need a theory of escalation that operates in more than one dimension. I want to suggest something like the reframing of escalation as the development of a counter-power that can enact a future beyond state and capital.

What would differentiate this theory from the A-Z linear idea?

For a start, it avoids accepting the spectacle at face value. Counter-power does not fetishise a nice photo of 100,000 people on the streets (on the A end of the spectrum) or video footage of demonstrators breaking windows and throwing things at the police (on the Z end). It moves away from thinking about spectacular conflict as the primary expression of collective struggle.

Instead, it places the idea that struggle takes place beyond what has conventionally been understood as revolutionary, and is actually embedded in much more mundane processes. When we are at a period of ‘low struggle’, the left is in fact failing to reach outside it’s more narrow confines and relate to these different and less visible forms of antagonism. The antagonisms of capitalism do not only exist on the barricades, and we need a theory of escalation that understands that. As we well know, students are not apathetic, we have just not got the means to express their antagonism within our political framework.

Counter-power is, therefore, something like the collective capacity to define our form of life against a hegemonic system. This agency does not need to be built or created – because workers and the multitude always already have an agential role – but it does need to be developed. We need to express that agency along specific, collective lines if we want it to have a specific, collective political force.

Escalation then becomes, in this theorisation, the successful process of engaging with the latent antagonisms produced by capitalism and moving these in the direction of overt struggle. This will only be possible when we recognise and connect developing antagonisms with a means of collective struggle.

For the student movement, a different kind of escalation necessitates a different organisational practice. The connection between the two can’t just be dictated, and will involve the democratic procedures of our movement as well as the autonomous development of politics on campuses across the country. What is clear, however, is that we need to change how we imagine our movement progressing.

This is not to say that we should abandon mass demonstrations all together. But the November 4th national demo cannot just be a rearticulation of the same old politics and the same old tactics. If it is to play into the development of a counter-power, it has to contribute to a new culture of street politics that opens up our movement to those who have never before understood their antagonisms to be political. It has to break the insular left out of its bubble, and constitute the creation of a mass infrastructure and the capacity to broaden and sustain struggle.

In part, we should also be looking at the November 4th demonstration as an announcement that we have gone beyond #FucktheTories and inarticulate anger, and that we have a vision of a future that we are ready to enact. It should point towards a tactical horizon – the student strike – and a willingness to do go beyond strategic repetition. This will also mean a change from small activist-consensus cliques towards broader bases of support. Fundamentally, this whole adjustment of theoretical perspective points towards the necessity of a political recomposition of the class.

I have every confidence that we can work through this recomposition, if we decide that we want to. And so, when it comes to November, I hope that we will not be march from A to B – and instead, we will march from A to Counter-Power.

Four Clear Demands

DISCLAIMER: This article is a personal opinion of one of our activists. It does not represent the views of the group at this time.

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The student movement is at its height, buzzing with momentum. In campuses across the United Kingdom, students are taking direct action and campaigning for a democratic, accessible and free Higher Education. In the past two years, we have seen the ranks of student activism swell and we have seen some victories to match with it.

Defend Education Birmingham achieved the living wage. At Warwick, the Vice Chancellor refuted the Russell Group’s call for £16,000 fees. We are achieving real outputs, and we shouldn’t stop there. There is victory in the process, and it is on those victories that, for instance, occupiers in the New University of Amsterdam have built a long and lasting movement.

In Warwick, we have put enormous pressure on senior management. The successful and historic Vote of No Confidence in the Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Nigel Thrift; and the Summit on Peaceful Protest where management all but apologized for their role in the December incidents of police brutality are only two examples of how we have put pressure on the University.

Yet, in spite of this, the University continues to advance in a dangerous direction. From plain-clothes security to the outsourcing of teaching staff that I have revealed today in a Boar news article, the University are still not reverting the course within our own institution towards marketization, casualization of staff, and alienation of both students and staff.

Something needs to change. We need to exert more pressure, focused on a small number of key and actionable demands. Demands should be concise and the University must be able to meet them in the short run. These four demands below are merely illustrative of what the demands could be, and not in any way demands approved by the group:

1. An apology from the University on their blaming of peaceful protesters for the violence they suffered at the hands of the police, and the University’s role in facilitating this.

2. The lifting of the indefinite injunction on occupation-style protest on campus.

3. A security code of conduct that protects freedom of assembly and expression on campus.

4. The immediate halt to casualization of staff, through TeachHigher and other means.

These 4 demands can all be resolved by the University, if they so desire. They can lift the injunction. They can apologize for the VC’s ridiculous statements. They can have a Security code of conduct. They can abort TeachHigher and reverse the course of marketization and casualization.

These 4 demands are proportionate and fair. Only a messed up University could conceive them as radical. Most of them are backed by the democratic will of students. The lack of an apology was a central point behind the Vote of No Confidence in Nigel Thrift. The Students’ Union recently passed near-unanimously policy on creating a Security Code of Conduct. The SU also has policy against casualization and marketization, namely in its policy on Postgraduates Who Teach.

On the back of these 4 demands, we can justify and mobilize a spring and summer of discontent and disruption at the University. These four demands distill with clarity our message and permit us to channel the momentum of our movement for concrete goals. With these demands, we can be confident on our ability to succeed in the short-run.

Warwick University Occupation Demands- 04/12/2014

On the third of December 2014, police officers were called to Warwick campus by university management and unlawfully attacked peaceful protesters. Today, following a “Cops off Campus” protest, hundreds of Warwick students occupied a university space to discuss police forces on campus and the state of our higher education system. After an open dialogue we agreed on this list of demands:

To the University of Warwick management:

We demand that Warwick University release a statement about the incidents which occurred yesterday, in which they declare their total support to Warwick students.

  1. The university must support any student affected by yesterday’s events who wish to take legal action against the police as it falls under their duty of care.
  2. The University and Nigel Thrift must retract their statement about the alleged assault which has been refuted by witnesses; unless they can prove otherwise.
  3. The University must fund an independent investigation to shed light on what actually happened.
  4. The University must condemn the unjustified and disproportionate violence used against students.
  5. The University must support the right to protest and condemn any form of state violence including the use of CS gas and tasers on our campus.
  6. We demand a written code of conduct for governing the actions of security on campus. This must be made in consultation with, and available to, all students.
  7. We demand that the conditions preventing those from participating in Warwick campus activities be lifted and an apology written to all those affected. The right to demonstrate peacefully should not be criminalised.

We would like an adequate response from the university by January the sixth 2015.

To West Midlands Police:

We also demand an apology from West Midlands Police for their unlawful use of force against a group of peaceful students and all bail conditions to be lifted.

We wanted to also highlight the conversations that were had when we were inside the occupation. We recognise that the police brutality is situated in a continuous move to privatise our education. Education is a right, not a privilege and the commodification of our education must be stopped. Whilst we are viewed as consumers and not students, the higher education institution will continue to further marginalise and oppress those within and outside the university.

  1. Therefore, we ask that Nigel Thrift and the University management pledge their commitment to free education as a right for all, and for Nigel Thrift to stop advocating for £16,000 fees.
  2. Warwick University must also work with students and communities who are suffering from racism, classism, sexism, ableism, heteronormativity, transphobia and all systems of oppression to increase and widen participation of all people in higher education. In practical terms this includes (but is not limited to) opposing the scrapping of the disability student allowance; creating more scholarships and bursaries; waiving fees and providing funding for refugees and asylum seekers; and creating fairer working conditions for workers on campus.
  3. The University must lower the costs of being a student here, especially in terms of extortionate food, accommodation, Warwick Sport and other living costs.
  4. We are concerned by the continuing corporate partnerships which are increasingly gaining voice, visibility and control on our campus, whilst at the same time student voices are being silenced. Therefore we demand complete transparency in terms of the corporate interests that are invested in our education, and for Warwick to publish this information. We want to know where the money flows and whose interests are being represented. Corporations’ or students’?

We thank all those who came out to the demonstration today and the students standing in solidarity with us at other universities, both in terms of demonstration and occupation.

We stand in solidarity with all those around the world, refusing to be silenced, resisting police brutality, and resisting state violence.

Regards,

The students occupying the top floor of the Rootes building, Warwick Campus.