On the ‘militant minority’ and the fight for justice at SOAS

A WFFE activist reflects on the controversy surrounding the recent SOAS Justice for Cleaners demo and the role of direct action that pushes the bounds of legality and respectability in social struggles.

On Monday, hundreds rallied at the School of Oriental and African Studies to protest the imposition of a new 5-year outsourcing contract upon the cleaners of the University.  After 10 years of fighting and winning numerous demands management have still refused to bring them in-house, despite calculations that this move would even be cost-neutral.  This betrays a deep ideological commitment to privatisation common across educational institutions in the UK.  After the rally, an occupation of management corridors ensued with noise, graffiti, and other property damage, and messages of solidarity were strewn in spray-paint across the walls of campus.  The backlash from some parts of the SOAS community has been condemnatory and inflamed.

  1. The rally was radical, broad-based and explicitly anti-management 

    It was an incredible act of unity, bringing together UCU, Unison, Palestine Society, Black Student’s Campaign, United Voices of the World and #FeesMustFall activists. Many interesting and salient connections were drawn: such as the acknowledgement that many private companies engaged in outsourcing and exploitative employment practices were also complicit in maintaining the checkpoints that police and restrict the lives of the subjugated Palestinian people.  This is a campaign that has evolved to situate itself and struggle within complex intersections of racial, economic and social justice: advocating for BDS, fair working conditions for the most marginalized workers, against border controls, for greater democratic control over educational structures and an ousting of managerial bureaucracy. 
    Cries of ‘no justice, no peace’ were raised alongside calls for bringing the cleaners in-house and for the expulsion of management.  And yet some of the internal forces within this campaign, notably the union bureaucracies, have rallied alongside the liberal tendencies within the populace to condemn the vandalism of management corridors.   As always, their attempts to de-fang and pacify struggle are unwelcome, and clash with their professed conviction at the rally that there is no common ground or trust to be found with management, that dialogue had failed, and disruption is where our power is located.

  2. The graffiti is both insignificant and entirely significant

    The SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners Campaign has been organizing for 10 years. Despite intimidation, continual threats, and even physical deportations by a violent and oppressive management, it has remained firm and resolute.  Despite prior promises and assertions that the cleaners would be brought in-house, the University has not remained true to its word and has decided to sign an outsourcing contract for another 5 years.  The campaign has won numerous victories including holiday pay, sick pay, pensions, and the London living wage, and has done so through an uncompromising and militant stance which has refused mediation and conciliation and maintained the necessity of disrupting business-as-usual to force change.  In the framework of a management and employment structure which positions cleaners as disposable resources, which routinely silences them, and which has frequented attacks on their dignity, security and wellbeing, the campaign has had little choice but to adopt such tactics.
    After 10 years of organizing, management is still betraying the cleaners and imposing their ideological agenda of privatisation, and it is only material damage that will force their hand – they have demonstrated again and again that there is no capacity to manoeuvre on the terrain of conscience, that there is no better nature to which we might appeal or good will we might sway, reaffirming that the interests of management and the University community are always in conflict.   This is a contradiction that is fundamentally present and sharpening across all Universities, and we must be prepared to do whatever needs to be done to challenge exploitation – even if that means offending the respectable sensibilities of some.  There should be no compromise on injustice – and the graffiti symbolized this, and was an inspiring act of reclamation.  It should be maintained that drawing a moral equivalence between the damage to a wall and the damage to the lives and wellbeing of workers is misguided and deeply poisonous.  We should not assimilate into the logic of management – their distorted moral criteria of condoning racialized violence yet condemning property damage should not be our frame of reference.  This dominant framework of ‘respectable’ conduct and protest only serves to protect the structures of power we are opposing.
  3. This campaign has a life entirely of its own 

    The SOAS community is somewhat unique, in as much as it has always been a hotbed of student activism and progressive thought. This is in part due to its academic structure and courses, in part due to a Student’s Union which is actively engaged in grassroots campaigning (but still permeated by the same flaws as any other SU and acting as a buffer to struggle, as aforementioned) and, I would contend, mostly because sustained, robust struggles such as SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners have comprised a large section of its recent history and shifted popular consciousness.  There is therefore a generalized predisposition towards left ideas (though dominated by an identity politics which fetishizes individual moral purity), and a culture of resistance which is more developed than the majority of campuses around the country, particularly considering the context of it being exam season and the rest of the student movement suffering demoralization and a loss of vitality nationally.
    j4c
    This was no better demonstrated than in the wildcat strikes which occurred in response to the suspension of union activist Sandy at the end of last year, which organically and spontaneously shut down the University with a hard picket with just one day’s notice.  Combined with the rent strikes occurring at UCL and Goldsmiths, the resistance to cuts to catering staff at Manchester, the #DontDeportLuqman campaign at Sussex: these powerful, militant and localised activities could well coalesce into a horizon of revitalized struggle for the student movement.  SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners has and continues to consistently carry that flame, and must be supported.

  4. The backlash: liberalism under the guise of radical left language and principles 

    The backlash has by and large adopted a different rationale relative to the usual overt reactionary response – perhaps testament to the more left-oriented composition of political identities at SOAS at large – of denigrating the protestors as unenlightened ‘thugs’ and ‘vandals’. It has largely assumed the form of branding the campaign ‘ableist’, ‘unsafe’, even ‘culturally appropriative’, and latching on to the painting of ‘Black out now’ on Richard Black’s (a member of management) door to brand the campaign ‘racist’.  Of course, no campaign is immune from oppressive tendencies – we are all moulded and conditioned by an oppressive world.  And yet a genuine on-the-ground knowledge of the composition, practices and goals of the campaign would be sufficient evidence to dismiss many of these cynical attempts at delegitimization.

    We must be critical of the strain of politics within the student movement that condemns militancy as uniformly exclusive and unsafe – not only does this patronise oppressed groups and prescribe on their behalf what form of action they can engage in, it is also ahistorical with regards to how oppressed people have won their freedoms and glosses over the power dynamics at play.  The neo-liberal university is inescapably constituted by injustice, exploitation and a distinct lack of safety – no one knows this more than the 9 cleaners callously deported from SOAS in 2009 – and we ultimately cannot negotiate, will, regulate or abstract that structural oppression away: it must be actively confronted, and fought.  We must be wary of those who wield and co-opt left principles against us, in order to frame us as enemies within regardless of political ties, allying themselves with the management and state seeking to crush us.

    It is interesting to note that some peoples’ commitment to opposing injustice apparently seems conditional on not marring the sanctity of property with a smear of paint – which is telling of how capitalism re-aligns our moral priorities, and is something we must challenge.  Indeed, taking stock of the backlash from demo and non-demo participants alike, it might be imagined that the #FeesMustFall speaker at the demo was party to a struggle that blocked the tuition fee hike through closed-door negotiation and sitting around the table and not through fighting with cops, occupations, property damage and other militant street tactics.

  5. This was a new kind of escalation 

    Despite how management and the liberal account might like to frame the tactics and actions that ensued after the rally, they were not conducted by a specialist and hardened black-bloc clique. We must be careful to not assimilate into such narratives which draw dichotomies between the ‘ordinary’ student or activist and the seasoned militant – again, these narratives are often propagated by the capitalist media and structures of authority to demonize and fragment us and delegitimize effective resistance – but this action was a spontaneous force of its own, inspired by and emerging from a generalized atmosphere of frustration, betrayal and anger.  To suggest those engaging in militant tactics are not also engaged in the groundwork of mobilizing and organizing generally within the campaign would be deeply disingenuous.  To conceptualize the campaign itself as homogeneous, and not a site of complex internal political tensions – where bureaucratic forces may act with undue influence, especially shaping outward facing narratives –  would also be insincere.
    soas
    It would be a misstep to characterize this protest as simply a flash of insular, spectacular resistance wishing to revive the spectre of ‘neo-anarchism’.   The readiness of students to risk their own safety, degrees and futures to support workers relentlessly exploited by management should be considered courageous, not condemned as adventurism.  This was the climax of a long, hard-fought and gritty process of escalation, including convincing hearts and minds, rallies, dialogue, and a diversity of tactics, and I hope this spirit can persist to force management into retreat – and inspire waves of resistance elsewhere.  Where the student movement often falls into rhythms of ebb and flow with the turnover of each cohort, the SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners campaign has provided an essential infrastructure and repository for the collective history and struggle of the past 10 years within SOAS – this must be an example to the rest of the student movement.

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….

On Question Time, and the Masquerade of Democracy

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At the Vice Chancellor question time a few nights ago, we witnessed the new VC, Stuart Croft, respond in no substantive, decisive or principled fashion to any of the questions about an education system in jeopardy. Questions about Prevent were glossed over, questions about pay polarity within the University deflected, questions about injunctions and the living wage and maintenance grant cuts dismissed. He declared that there are no ‘simple solutions’, that some of these are ‘national issues’ over which the University has no sway – as if Universities are simply subjects of neo-liberalism and not engines for some of its worst advances.

Although the actions and agitations of Warwick For Free Education have contributed to the pressure which impelled the new Vice Chancellor to host this Question Time, last night’s performance and rhetoric continue to expose the contradictions and deterioration of democracy within the marketized University. In his first all student email and at the Question Time last night he gestured towards a different, more genial atmosphere and mode of governance, whilst committing to no political response or decisive action on the new devastating set of Higher Education reforms. We recognise these gestures as a ploy to placate our anger and coax us into forgetting the past, as an attempt to conceal the draconian responses of this University to our campaigning beneath vague indications of more dialogue and more engagement. This dialogue only ever seems to result in pledges for more dialogue – and never action.

We have not forgotten. We have not forgotten the police violence, the emotional impacts of which plague many of us to this day. We have not forgotten the injunction, which represses our right and freedom to protest. We have not, and cannot, forget the pain and violence the processes of marketization inflict on our community of students and staff. We will not forget, and we reject entirely the notion that a change in personality of the figure who governs our University could ever be sufficient to defend our vision of education and our collective wellbeing. Our interests are, and have always been, opposed to the managers and administrators of the neo-liberal University, those who accrue obscene salaries whilst workers suffer casualization and real wage cuts, our living costs rise, and our campuses are privatized. Not only has our new Vice Chancellor exposed himself as little more than a politician, the same as Nigel Thrift before him, his structural position constrains and pressures him to adherence to the dictates of the market.

We reject the notion that there is some common ground that can be reached between us with enough dialogue, especially when it is situated on the terms of management. We reject that a termly Question Time where we are not responded to decisively, let alone even promised progress, is anything but an act of political theatre intended to palliate antagonisms between the University community and management. We reject the notion that this should be the extent of our democratic agency. We demand fundamental change.

To abandon our protest, our organizing and our struggle to the remote maneuvers and equivocation of a managerial class, which has demonstrated time and time again their lack of concern and regard for our welfare, is only to pacify ourselves. When our maintenance grants are being abolished, when the Higher Education reforms threaten to decimate public Higher Education, when state-sanctioned Islamophobic monitoring and surveillance courses through our University structures – and our management remain at best neutral and at worst complicit – the time for polite conversation has passed. Systemic violence and exploitation is being enacted upon the most marginalized within and outside our educational institutions, and we cannot wait on the hollow rhetoric and nominal gestures of management to resolve these issues for us. When our voices are disregarded amidst the advance of the market, intervention is rendered our only option.

The new Vice Chancellor has exposed and demonstrated his position – and we will respond in kind.

On the Politics of Consultation

*A critique of the government’s HE Green Paper consultation process by a Warwick for Free Education Activist. Please consider signing the petition attached beneath.*

The Green Paper consultation is a charade. This is not meant simply in the context of it being anathema to our principles as a group organizing towards free education – the Green Paper proposes nothing short of the complete marketization of the Higher Education sector which, for all their rhetoric around social mobility, will inevitably result in the further casualization of the University workforce, cuts to the already most underfunded and disadvantaged Universities and their replacement by private entities, the slashing of courses that are not amenable to the interests of employers and capital, rent and fee hikes, cuts to student support such as maintenance grants, Disabled Student’s Allowance and the student nursing bursaries, and the distortion of education from a common good into a commodity. ‘Social mobility’, whether we indeed believe this phrase a token substitute for the presence of genuine justice – more a re-arrangement of individuals within fixed social hierarchies rather than an abolition of the hierarchies themselves – it fails even on its own terms, serving as a smokescreen to conceal the upward redistribution of wealth operationalized by market mechanisms.

‘Teaching excellence’ seems, by extension, to mean the expansion of an increasingly insecure workforce which is bound into compliance by metric regulated performance management and mounting workloads – as if ‘excellence’ is indeed interchangeable with ‘exploitation’, where the maximum possible amount of labour is extracted at the minimum cost, within a climate of intense bureaucratic pressure and relentless target acquisition. ‘Student choice’ seems an equivalent of ‘consumer choice’, which is afforded an incongruous priority in the title given that this document was in its first instance formulated with no broad input from students themselves, and actively hinders the expression of our voices in the modelling of its consultation questions (not to mention the proposed mechanisms of restriction of Student Unions in the framework of the repressive Trade Union Bill, constraining the democratic will of the student body). It seems, then, ‘student choice’ is a façade intended to disguise the real interests guiding this document – those of bosses and corporations.

‘Student choice’ is rendered little more than a token appeal and performative platitude within this context: which in truth reflects not an autonomy to manoeuvre within Higher Education as one wills, in pursuit of passions, creativity and personal flourishing, not a democratic control over the content of one’s education, but an ability to differentiate a selection of University options from a range of sophisticated branding and varying fees, functionalized by a value-for-money, career prospects oriented calculation. ‘Choice’ seems to afford less and less power to us, and more to the whims of employers – with whom the modern University is so intimately connected – as if the market is the ultimate arbiter of not only self-determination but quality. The optimisation of an assortment of skills compatible with specific career trajectories, the necessity to subordinate our futures to the greed of a range of bosses, apparently encapsulates in it all the dimensions and aspirations which might define ‘choice’. This term exposes itself, and the market framework in which it is situated, as hollow, with the best options available to those who pay more, and all those ‘choices’ culminating in the same indebted, exploited condition, and indeed riven with the broken promises of an austerity economy and a precarious labour market (after all, for all the Government’s proclamations of more people from disadvantaged backgrounds being afforded access to Higher Education, broader social and economic inequality has only deepened under their rule).

On its own terms, even, the private provision of education is, as with the privatisation of other spheres, set only to lessen quality, as Universities will be afforded more streamlined access to funding and degree awarding status, ultimately tailored towards recruiting the largest possible intake of fee-paying students and the mass production of degrees at the cheapest possible cost. We only need to look to the ailing state of Further Education to recognise the ills of market administration of public goods, where four out of 10 colleges are now threatened by closure or merging.

But, beyond this initial title, the language of which continues unapologetically throughout the consultation document, the entire façade of consultation is unravelled as little more than a superficial tapping in to the already most privileged voices within a policy framework fixed in principle and intention but malleable on some technicalities. It is an ostensibly equitable process of debate which is situated on the terrain and terms of the powerful. Again, the language of ‘choice’ betrays itself here, never entailing the determination and formation of our education in accordance with student voices, but simply the expression of those voices by proxy through the market and elite figures, borne out by the patronising assumption that we as students do not know what is in our best interests, but that those decisions are best rendered by the (unstable, destructive, prone-to-crisis) market.

Indeed, there is little opportunity or capacity to raise an opposition in principle or totality to the Green Paper, to challenge the essential notion of the market provision of education. Instead the questions are leading, inaccessible, naturalising of market mechanisms, and intended to advantage voices already situated within positions of power. For example, looking at question 12(a) – “Do you agree with the proposals to further improve access and success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds? Please give reasons for your answer” – this manipulation is manifested. After all, if we were to answer to the contrary, that would entail that we were opposed to the concept of improving access to education for disadvantaged groups – which, as a group committed to liberation, we are of course not. This question is not structured to facilitate the expression of opinions which refuse the very idea that market mechanisms safeguard social mobility.

Similarly, looking at Question 7, in relation to the Teaching Excellence Framework, “How can we minimise any administrative burdens on institutions? Please provide any evidence relating to the potential administrative costs and benefits to Institutions of the proposals set out in this document” – we see the unfair advantages and weighting provided to the voices of certain individuals within this consultation. There is no opportunity to express the perspective that metrics in themselves are detrimental constraints to exploratory, imaginative and cooperative teaching, or indeed that teaching quality and the positive purposes and effects of education are quantifiable at all. It is obvious, also, that those who are most capable of providing evidence and statistics will be perceived as more legitimate and thus will be assigned more significance by those mediating the consultation. Those most capable of providing evidence will be those already in positions of institutional power, familiar with the logistical mechanisms of such already existing projects as the Research Excellence Framework. By extension, the voices which will most influence the outcomes of this consultation will be those with already vested interests who are familiar with navigating existing structures of power. The terms of the debate are set with particular principles, in such a manner as to unfairly advantage those already invested in those principles.

Further to this, the consultation is an incredibly long, complex and technical document, which – for all the Government’s rhetoric around ‘student choice’ and increased access – is heavily inaccessible to students and those without specific institutional knowledges, thus restricting our input and exposing ‘choice’ not so much as an expression of popular control over our education but an embellishment of the allure of varying degree ‘investments’.

Thus consultation entails a kind of perfunctory and performative appeal to negotiation within the context of a predetermined political and economic agenda. The parameters and logic are static, and non-negotiable – but some of the nuances can be bargained over. Not only do we reject vehemently the format, language and terms of this debate, but rather the very notion that our victory should emerge from such channels or that our resistance should be contained within their deceptive legitimacy. Whilst we have not discouraged engagement with this consultation, nor have we encouraged it, nor validated the notion that such engagement should be the extent of our democratic stake in educational policy and processes.

We fundamentally reject the notion that an ability to effect minor adjustments to a programme of market principles set by an unaccountable and detached ruling class should be the only legitimate expression of democratic will – and, indeed, we contend that our principles of participatory and open democracy as a group are incompatible with such a consultation. Indeed, this consultation reflects the elitist and exclusive nature of our parliamentary channels, dominated by the interests of private gain and profit. Further to this, we believe conciliation with that ruling class is impossible, especially one so committed to austerity and neo-liberalism as the Tories: we recognise that our vision of education can only be effected by the mass, militant and grassroots movements of students and workers nationally and internationally, as it has been won in Germany and elsewhere.

Exercising our democratic voice individually and in private, through an incredibly dense and technical consultation intended to marginalize student voices, is a poor substitute for collective control over the structures and content of our Universities and education, and this is the goal we agitate towards. We recognise the interests of the Government and corporate elites as antagonistic to our own, and that to contain our struggle entirely within their ‘legitimate’ channels and consultations is not only to moderate and recuperate that struggle, but to validate defective and tokenistic models of democratic engagement, and to belie the fact that the Government answers not to discursive engagement but, in its final instance, to the market. It is there, through protest, agitation and disruption, that we must assume leverage to halt this Green Paper and its catastrophic proposals for Higher Education.

Anything less would be to dismiss where the battle lines have been drawn and to acquiesce to the assault on education as a public good. Whether the Tories were voted in or not (and 24% of the electorate is hardly a significant democratic mandate) – we recognise the necessity to be actors in our own struggle, that moral agency is not internal to the dynamics of the state but frequently outside and in conflict with it, and that to abandon our fight to ‘legitimate’ appeals to the conscience of an unconscionable Government is to result only in a betrayal even more severe than that which defined students voting en-masse for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 on the (subsequently broken) promise of halting any tuition fee rise.

Our fight is not situated in artificial consultations but on the streets, in occupation, in mass political education on our own terms, and in collective struggle against the forces that will not hesitate to decimate public Higher Education.

***

Sign our petition below to call on and pressure Warwick University management to oppose the Green Paper.

https://docs.google.com/a/estudiant.upf.edu/forms/d/1eSJI5RwyN8_ChwvTqgQVYSeYR2SpB_FXLz8pOs8fN6w/viewform?c=0&w=1

The Logo isn’t Important

John Murray. This is the opinion of an individual, not WFFE.

University-of-Warwick-new-007

Warwick’s turbulent year rolls on, and the new logo is the most recent debacle.

Soon after it was announced petitions were started, and social media went into a flurry. The uni was being slammed on Facebook, and it didn’t take long for the first Nigel Thrift meme to emerge. We have even been treated to the bizarre spectacle of management PR guru, Peter Dunn, arguing with students on Overheard. Now student consultations are being offered, and some are claiming this is a victory for democracy and a sensible move on the part of university management.

They are wrong. In fact, a ‘consultation’ (rather than, say, a vote) after the fact is only a rear guard action against a 4000 strong petition. University democracy, as we have argued before, is fundamentally broken. When the SU passes policy about free education, the living wage, staff pay, fossil fuel divestment, the cost of living on campus, or our lack of confidence in Nigel Thrift we are ignored. A conversation about precisely what kind of management speak the university uses to sell our campus does nothing to change that. The fact is the university loses next to nothing if they back down on this logo. So I, for one, do not consider this a substantial democratic process – nor do I consider the removal of this new logo a substantial victory. We want student and staff democracy, not customer feedback!

I am not trying to say that the petition signing students have done anything wrong. I’ve signed it myself and encourage others to do so – it sends a strong message that students do not support the corporate image which Warwick seeks to develop. Yes, we should feel angry when we see our community being reduced to a marketing strategy designed to build a brand and attract investment. Yes, we should make clear we don’t support it, make clear that we find it ridiculous, make clear that we want to be students not consumers of the Warwick experience. But the logo is the superficial expression of deeper problems. It signifies ongoing marketisation, but it is not the most harmful result of marketisation. We should not get hung up on Warwick aubergine triangles.

Instead, we should be focusing on arguing about things which actually make a large and immediate difference to the lives of students and staff at the university. In particular, the TeachHigher program needs to be fought. Students should be standing alongside staff against the internal outsourcing of teaching and the abolition of employment contracts. Certainly in my time at Warwick there has never been a more important chance for student and staff solidarity to force a victory against management. The English department has just been the first of many departments to unanimously pass policy opposing TeachHigher, and there are rumours of a national demo in the air.

Let’s fight together on the issues that matter, rather than being distracted by the symbolic expression of marketisation. Let’s deal with the neoliberal university as it damages members of our community, rather than as it expresses itself in corporate bullshit.

Students Against Injunctions – Silent Demo in University House

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WFFE activists are currently holding a silent demonstration inside university house in solidarity with students at UAL and against the use of injunctions.

In December, Warwick’s occupation was ended by an injunction. Today, we see UAL students in court facing a similar situation.

Warwick’s injunction targeted two students for unlimited legal costs and forever prohibits “occupation-style protest” on campus. It – and all injunctions like it – is grossly authoritarian, and worthy of the utmost condemnation.

This is why WFFE has felt the need to establish our solidarity with UAL students, and highlight the totally unacceptable and yet increasingly common practice of undemocratic managers using expensive legal instruments to prohibit the expression of dissent on campus.

We want to reiterate our support for UAL students in their fight against foundation course cuts. These cuts will directly damage access to Higher Education, particularly for those from less privileged backgrounds and oppressed groups. Foundation courses and programs like them are absolutely fundamental to our understanding of Free Education. Students are absolutely right to be standing up against these attacks.

We cannot allow protest on campus to be prevented by managerial dictatorships.

In the Wake of Yob-Gate

John Murray

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Something remarkable has happened at Warwick over the last couple of years: management’s gross and escalating failures have resulted in a crisis of legitimacy,

This has never been more evident than in their latest press campaign, which verges so closely on parody (‘Free Education Campaigners Issue Death Threats to VC’). The yob-gate episode more closely resembles a playground scrap than it does the actions of an in-control management. So what should the campus left do when their management are reduced to making outrageous accusations in an attempt to desperately win over some form of public sympathy?

Well, it’s very clear that Thrift & Co. want the student body to react to their tabloid tactics. They want to bait the reactionary right to turn on WFFE and aligned campaigners, in an attempt to drive us out of the mainstream of student political discourse and onto the ‘radical’ fringes. But so far, this doesn’t seemed to have happened. Everyone appears to be treating their claims as absurd and defamatory (as indeed, they are), whilst also recognising that WFFE represents generally held concerns.

Like we said so many times during the summit, the SU has at least 5 democratic policies, voted on at All Student Meetings, which represent large elements of our opinion:

  1. Warwick Against Tuition Fees
  2. A Better Pay Deal for Staff
  3. Building a Democratic University
  4. Lower Living Costs on Campus
  5. No Confidence in Nigel Thrift

Therefore, we have a very strong claim to be acting on the basis of mass support. This is not to say that WFFE would be illegitimate without general support – a great number of brilliant movements have existed without a majority – but that in these specific circumstances our aims to clearly link up with the democratic opinion of students. Similarly, we have very close links with staff and are very grateful to be able to work alongside the staff union, UCU. On this basis, we can say students and staff support us.

I think the first step is to recognise that. We should be confident that we are not speaking for a super-niche fringe, and we should not act as if most students will never support us. We have a fantastic opportunity to link up with the general student body and reinforce our broad base of support. WFFE is a coalition campaign which needs to appeal to the widest possible set of students, and we should keep this in mind over the coming months. We are approaching a point where mass support will be vital.

This is because as management plunge (or continue plunging) into crisis we need to advance an easily understood structural critique of higher education in the UK. We need to make the point that Thrift is not the devil incarnate, he is a product of a neoliberal education system.

This critique, then, would form the basis of the second part of our response: to push for a mass movement on campus, and to win. Nigel Thrift has already backed down on supporting 16k fees, publicly stating that he doesn’t toe the Russell group line. Of course we have to do the hard work of building infrastructure which will last on campus for many years after we have all graduated, but there is also now an unprecedented potential for management to make key concessions.