Student protests have traditionally been regarded with a certain condescending disdain in British society, as though they were some kind of privileged youthful extension of rag week, that can be tolerated but not taken entirely seriously. So this week’s announcement that two students have been suspended for nine months from the University of Birmingham for their part in an eight-day sit-in is not likely to be regarded as a specially momentous event by the wider public.
But anyone who cares about the future of higher education, and the right to protest that has always been one of the hallmarks a democratic society, really ought to pay a little more attention.
The suspensions relate to a sit-in last November, when students occupied the university’s Aston Webb building. Their demands included an end to the University of Birmingham’s lobbying for a rise in tuition fees, greater democratisation in the running of the university and a living wage for all university staff, both academic and non-academic.
All this, you might think, was admirable and even noble. Here were students in their early twenties, none of whom were likely to be affected by the rise in tuition fees themselves, trying to stop them being increased for those who came after them, defending the idea of the public university, while simultaneously expressing solidarity with the cleaning staff.
Birmingham University took a very different view. Thirteen students were arrested for refusing to give their details to the police. When an attempt to bring criminal charges against them collapsed due to lack of evidence, the university undertook its own protracted and often ludicrous disciplinary hearings against five of the students.
One student – a dysplaxic Algerian – was accused of ‘ violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, intimidating or offensive behaviour or language’ after a senior university manager accused him of ‘sniggering’ and circling ‘him in a way that was disorientating’, and engaging in behavior that was ‘ loud, persistent, lacking in spatial awareness and took place in a wholly inappropriate environment.’
A female student was accused of behaving in a disorderly manner and ‘smugly laughing.’ These charges are straight out of the Joke City statute book. Yet now two of the students, Simon Furse and Kelly Rogers, have been suspended and a third student has been given a formal reprimand and a suspended sentence. Furse was found guilty of misuse of university premises, action likely to impair safety, and interference with the duties of staff, on the basis of a video in which he can be seen organizing a peaceful protest.
These suspensions aren’t an isolated event. Ever since the introduction of university fees, British universities have become increasingly hostile to student protest. As universities become more like corporations than public services, the managerial elites that run them have increasingly paid themselves the eyewatering salaries once reserved for CEOs and bankers. Last vicechancellors awarded themselves an average pay rise of of £22,000, while lecturers and non-academic staff were offered 1 percent, following nearly six years in whcih they had experienced a 13 percent fall in real wages.
David Eastwood, Birmingham University’s vicechancellor, is one of the most high-profile beneficiaries of this process, whose declared salary of £400,000 makes him the highest paid vice-chancellor in the UK. In Birmingham, as in other universities, the creation of a high-salaried managerial elite has been accompanied by the imposition of debt on their student ‘clients’, by higher costs of student accommodation, by job layoffs, job insecurity and wage freezes for those lower down the pecking order, not only academic and administrative staff but cleaners and caterers – a process that has been facilitated by the outsourcing of services to external contractors.
As British universities have become corporatised and neoliberalised, they have also become increasingly intolerant of protests or criticism. Last December student occupied Senate House library – the same place where I spent much of my final year in 1986 – as part of the same movement that produced the Birmingham protests.
In response the University of London brought in cops and G4S security guards to clear the protest, and clear it they did, punching students in the face and dragging them out by the hair. At Sussex in January 23 students were suspended for their part in similar protests. Even though most were reinstated following legal action, they still face internal disciplinary hearings.
The Birmingham suspensions are another confirmation of this authoritarian drift. Back in 1970 E.P.Thompson warned of the rise of the ‘business university’ and asked:
‘ Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a centre of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society in which it operates?’
The answer to the first question is no, the answer to the second is yes. And that’s why the suspended students deserve all the support they can get.
For further information, see http://www.defendeducationbrum.org/