WFFE’S THREE PRIORITIES FOR THE YEAR: HE reforms, Migrant Solidarity, Defend Right to Protest

As Warwick for Free Education (WFFE) enters its third year of existence, the country faces further drastic measures imposed by the May government that threaten our universities. A post-Brexit environment has allowed the government to legitimize hostility, racism and xenophobia towards migrants, and endanger the rights of international students. At our own University of Warwick, student rights continue to be limited by management’s High Court injunction against occupations and sit-ins across the campus.

WFFE continues, as it has from its inception, to stand alongside students and staff for a free, democratic and liberated education accessible to all. The three main priorities we will tackle this year are: the Higher Education reforms (including campaigning for a boycott of the National Student Survey [NSS]); strengthening solidarity with all migrants (including international students); and defending the right to protest in the University and beyond.

Higher Education Reforms

The government is planning to implement some of the most drastic and far reaching changes to Higher Education in the last few decades, transforming education from a public good, enriching society and creating a critical space for engagement with the wider society, into a privatised, individual debt-ridden token to a high-paying job.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a key part of the reforms, ostensibly measures teaching quality according to a set of metrics that evaluates universities’ ability to produce high earning graduates. These metrics are unrelated to actual teaching quality and poorly quantified through measures like the NSS and graduate earnings, to the detriment of students’ education and already overworked, strained and casualized staff and academics.  We stood with staff to pressure the university Senate to not comply with Council’s deplorable decision to opt in to the TEF just the other week.

The reforms will also vastly increase the number of private providers of higher education. These providers have a proven record of fraud, finagling and failure where they have been operating in the US and in further education in the UK. They will drive down standards and put pressure on existing institutions, which will be allowed to collapse under these reforms. A two-tier, marketised, privatised, American-style system awaits if these reforms pass.

The National Students Survey (NSS) is the questionnaire taken by final year undergraduates in an attempt to measure students’ satisfaction with their course. The data collected by the NSS will be used to force universities and courses to compete against each other to achieve a higher ranking. Fortunately, WFFE has successfully campaigned to pass a motion in the Student Union’s autumn policy referendum, mandating the SU to join the nationwide boycott of the NSS.

Ultimately, the government’s HE reforms will allow universities to raise their tuition fees above inflation according to their results in the TEF and NSS. This is one reason why WFFE marched on November 19th alongside staff and students from across the country to protest against the government’s reforms that will only serve to contribute to the marketisation of higher education.

Migrant Solidarity

This year, WFFE will do more to increase its solidarity with migrants. Understanding how the education system reproduces racism and discrimination by its treatment of international students is fundamental when fighting for a liberated education. International students are treated as cash cows through the exorbitant amount of fees they are required to pay; but they are not even eligible for the Disability Students’ Allowance, face deportation threats and are forced to register with the police. Nonetheless, migrant solidarity goes beyond the university realm, which is why WFFE last week organised, alongside liberation societies such as Warwick Anti-Sexism Society, Warwick Anti-Racism Society and Warwick Pride, an event which featured the excellent activist organisation Movement for Justice, to inform students on how to take action against draconian and racist immigration controls. As a group we will be joining a demonstration outside Yarl’s Wood detention center on December 3rd, where many migrants are detained indefinitely and are victims of sexual harassment and racist abuse by guards. We will also continue to work alongside staff in our battle against the Prevent agenda, which encourages islamophobia and state surveillance in universities.

Defend the Right to Protest

December 3rd will also mark the two year anniversary of the police brutality that followed a sit-in on campus in support of free education. Despite countless requests for an apology, the University has still failed to acknowledge its complicity in the violence, and students are still suffering from the effects of this unwarranted assault. As a consequence of these events, the University administration spent thousands on a High Court Injunction banning occupation-style protests across campus. This is a blatant infringement on students’ right to protest; occupation have been integral to past victories the world over, including at Warwick – we probably wouldn’t have the Students’ Union building and have achieved divestment from apartheid-linked shares without them. We continue to stand behind direct action as a vital tool of political engagement and dissent.

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….