openDemocracyUK

Freedom is essential to our universities, and is under attack

Angry British students are teaming up with exploited university workers to resist the commercialisation of universities, says the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales. Together, they are a powerful force.

Natalie Bennett
12 December 2013
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Yesterday, I couldn’t be at the #copsoffcampus protest at the University of London, due to a prior commitment at the other end of England. Green peer Jenny Jones, who has a long track record of monitoring the Met Police was there, however, and was able to report that – this time – a peaceful campus protest wasn’t molested.

ULU was at the centre of a dozen or more linked protests around the country, for it was here last week that an attempted occupation was ended in police violence and mass arrests. That followed plans to shut down the University of London Union – long a centre of political debate and activism in the capital.

I was able to be at Sheffield University, where there was another #copsoffcampus protest, with strong local as well as national cause. For after a short occupation last week, I was told that the university has taken out possession orders on all of its buildings, so that an occupation can be immediately ended.

This is part of a very disturbing trend that is clearly seeking to end traditional student (and staff) methods of non-violent protest. It has also seen University of Sussex students threatened with being banned from their studies for taking part in peaceful protests.

A coalition of academics has condemned “the remarkable surge in police presence and surveillance across university campuses over recent months” and called for “an immediate end to injunctions against protest on university campuses and occupations of university buildings”. They’re demanding “that management cease its authorisation of the violent repression of dissent on campus” – you can back their petition through that link.

The Green Party backs that call. Universities have long been centres of free speech and independent thought. They have been – and must remain – places where free speech, free action, political action are possible.

The trend to turn them into degree factories where the students are encouraged to regard themselves as “customers”, where academics are kept on low pay and zero-hours contracts without the security of tenure that is essential to academic freedom, is not only deeply undemocratic, but also deeply damaging. Independent free thought has to remain at the centre of scholarship – that’s vital for democracy, but also vital for the quality of our university education.

That trend is just one reason that’s led to the rise of student protests. Of course another is the level of tuition fees. With many of today’s students facing leaving university with £55,000 of debt that’s going to weigh them down for 30 years (which reports today suggest 40% might never pay off), going into a job market that is going to ask them to slave at unpaid internships, or face ending up in low-skilled, low-paid jobs for life, the palpable anger and frustration on our campuses is no surprise.

The fact that many of these student actions have tied together the concerns of students with those of the workers who serve them (I was horrified to learn that in Sheffield there are at least 300 staff paid less than a living wage in the University and Student Union – the petition on this issue is here) is both encouraging but also at least in part an explanation for the current repression.

Underpaid, outsourced, low-wage workers, often from ethnic minorities and always majority female, have a lot in common with the young of today. When both groups realise that, the resistance to the commercialisation of our universities and the extraordinarily inequitable, unsustainable structure of our society is going to be a great deal stronger.

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