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University: a place of freedom?

At the University of East London, one gets used to being ignored. We tend to be off the radar of those media elites who have a very vague notion that there even are universities other than Oxford, Cambridge, and a handful of others. This is hardly surprising, given that our undergraduate intake is also one of the least socially privileged in Europe, such that the graduation of every one of our students is a personal triumph for them as well as for their tutors. But it means that few non-specialists realise that in several fields UEL has a world-class reputation for radical research. One of those areas is anthropology.Jeremy Gilbert teaches Cultural Studies at the University of East London and is the author of Anticapitalism and Culture (Berg 2008)

Please sign the petition to keep UEL open.

So when professor of anthropology Chris Knight, a brilliant thinker and a notoriously maverick political activist, began to attract headlines for his anti-capitalist pronouncements last week, one could hardly help but enjoy a frisson at the attention that the university was finally receiving. Even more heartening was the publicity for the planned ‘alternative summit’ which Chris had organised - with the support of our UCU (University and College Union) branch -to coincide with the G20 meeting at ExCel, just two stops down the DLR from UEL’s Docklands campus. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always agreed with Chris’ politics, his tactics, or even with the frustratingly non-consultative way in which the alternative summit was organised, but this was an important initiative which was fully in keeping with the emergent culture of global anticapitalism. Over the last 15 years, the ‘counter-summit’ has become one of the most striking models of the movement’s commitment to radical democracy, to a culture of debate and discussion. Where any violence has occurred at anti-capitalist protests, it has not occurred at the counter-summits; except when, as in Genoa in 2001, they were directly attacked by security forces in a flagrant violation of human rights. Many counter-summits have used university premises and many have involved students and academics giving their time and energy freely to build such temporary public spaces. On these occasions, as on so many others, universities around the world have played a crucial role in hosting debates between individuals and civil society organisations, in a common effort to develop strategies and visions for the future.

There is a reason for this. The life-blood of democracy is the meeting and sharing of hearts and minds, and the university is one of the most obvious institutions that can facilitate this: in fact, this is the university’s only fundamental purpose. An institution like the University of East London (UEL), proud of its open access policy and of its commitment to inclusion, even more than others, must take a stand to defend its public role of facilitating dialogue and promoting social justice. But in order to do so, the university has to be open. It is the responsibility of its management to defend the historic role of the university as a sanctuary for open debate; not to collude with those who are responsible for the present crisis in depriving it of that role. Yet, a few days ago, senior university management of UEL decided to cancel the alternative summit that was sponsored by UCU, citing ‘security’ considerations (the classic excuse for every historic attempt to curtail free speech). Now it even proposes to close the campus for normal academic activity during the 2 days of the G20 summit.

The university management should ask itself if this is really the best way to fulfil its duty to the wider public, to whom it owes both its livelihood and a duty to fulfil its role as a part of civil society. The past 3 decades have seen public spaces such as universities hollowed out by the state and by corporations, as more and more of our common resources are transformed into sterile commodities, valued only in cash terms. In universities this has led to a policy regime which increasingly sees ‘employability’ in the ‘creative industries’ or in ‘business and finance’ as the only benchmark of success by which a university education can be judged; which sees research separated from teaching; which sees ‘knowledge transfer’ to the commercial sector as the only legitimate destination for the fruits of inquiry.

There is a deep connection between this process and the ones that have led the world to its current state of social and economic injustice and climate chaos. In all such cases, the real collective creativity that generates value of all kinds - from the factory to the seminar room, from the laboratory to the orchestra, from the field to the home - is channelled into the endless, mindless production of commodities. Social creativity must be freed from the constraints imposed upon it by the dictates of commodity-production, if we want to meet the challenges of our times, finding solutions to problems which only co-operation, rather than profit-seeking, can solve. But this cannot be done if spaces for debate, questioning and social invention are closed down.

We can all see where such neoliberal dogma has led the global economy. It is understandable that the university management should have become alarmed at some of the invitations to use UEL as a convergence space for protesters, once the alternative summit had ended, which had apparently been circulating in the activist blogosphere. But now is the time for them to take a deep breath, consider their place in the wider scheme of things, and ask themselves if what they really want for our university is to be known as the one which closed its doors to debate at a time when it was needed more than ever. It is time to decide whether UEL will carry on following the rules of the discredited neoliberal programme, becoming a part of the deepening problem; or whether it will start to become part of the solution, as a university should.

Please sign the petition to keep UEL open.

(This article draws on the wording of the petition to UEL corporate management drawn up by the Open UEL Now Collective: the author gratefully acknowledges permission to from the original drafters'.)