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A hundred days of occupation: the "Free Hetherington" at Glasgow University

On February 1st, a building owned by Glasgow University was occupied in protest against attempts to model the university on a business, in solidarity with the wider student movement against the rise in tuition fees and privatisation of higher education. Yesterday, the Free Hetherington celebrated 100 days of occupation
Cailean Gallagher
12 May 2011
OurKingdom's debate on The Scottish Spring

On 1st February, at the end of the Winter of Protest, one of the early buds of the Spring of Resistence appeared in Glasgow. A building, owned by Glasgow University, was occupied and reopened as a space of solidarity, activism, and creativity. Yesterday it celebrates its hundredth day of occupation, making it the longest occupation in Britain; the bud is still blooming. It can look back at the impact it’s had on the lives of the many individuals who have passed through its doors; but can also look at the positive impact it has had on its central cause of free and fair education.

As a large town house with two floors of space for events, socializing and sleeping, the ‘Free Hetherington’ is suited to its new purpose. Its predecessor, the Hetherington Research Club, had for fifty years been a social space and bar for graduates, but was closed as part of the university’s early austerity measures. When the university began to change it into office space it became symbolic of the attempts by Glasgow University, under its principle Anton Muscatelli, to model the university as a business and to “strategically prioritise” by scrapping courses such as modern languages, adult education, nursing, anthropology. It was resistance to this remodeling of Glasgow University that was the spur for the occupation, but it has bloomed into much more than a place of internal resistance to one university’s attack on free education.

In the past hundred days, it has been a hub for the anti-cuts movement across Scotland, a place where people can meet freely and openly, and where a whole range of activists of various colours (from socialists and anarchists through to liberals and environmentalists – with at least one self-acclaimed ‘Viking’) have united in a way that is rarely seen on the left.

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As well as facilitating such unity, the Free Hetherington in itself an example of the different kind of life people aspire to. The building is open, access is free - as is tea and coffee – and every night a communal meal is cooked using food thrown out by local supermarkets. There is a spirit of respect and equality; many are surprised to hear there is no election, no committee, no leader, just a relaxed sense of trust amongst people who eat, sleep and work together to make their ideologies a reality.

Last time I was there someone was working at an easel on the landing, and a local community group were meeting upstairs. Sometimes famous people come to read or talk or sing, like Billy Bragg, Ken Loach, or the Makar (Scotland’s poet laureate) Liz Lochhead; and the space buzzes with students and locals. Some evenings there is a party. Quite often there are heated exchanges about how best to change the world. But people mostly sit and chat, or study, or relax. If you are in the West End of Glasgow, then be sure to go.

But it is outwith as well as within those walls, covered in radical artwork and slogans, that the occupation’s success is to be judged. And if there’s one definite way of judging the success of a campaign, it’s if those it’s directed against want it to end. One morning the Hetherington woke to an eviction instigated by the University. Activists were rallied from across the city, but could do little against the 80 police, helicopter and dog branch called out to evict us. Not only were the police certain of completing the eviction; they also made the whole of the country certain as the story topped the Scottish news.

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All the more humiliating, then, when we rallied and marched up to the top of the hill to occupy the central university meeting rooms. Facing the closure of the university’s nerve centre for a number of days, the university told us that we could march back down to reoccupy the Hetherington. It was a PR disaster for the university, with attention on Newsnight Scotland, while national newspapers covered it for the next two days. It even brought the occupation to the attention of the UK press. One thing is certain: it brought the issue of higher education to the top of the national news agenda.

Almost every day the Hetherington holds events: free schools offering different ways of learning; workshops on effective activism; film screenings and discussions. This summer it will hold a radical summer school (for which it is looking for participants). The list is endless, and a look at the website gives a good impression of what goes on. Much has been written about the effect of occupations and the use of space and activism (OurKingdom’s ‘Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest’ is a good place to start). But I want to illustrate one major success of the Free Hetherington: the way this small radical occupation has affected the Scottish political environment.

You might wonder why students are protesting in Glasgow, where university will remain free. However, there was uncertainty about the policies of the Scottish parties on fees in Scotland until shortly before the election. The activism of the Hetherington, as well as the force of the Scottish and the British protests, was essential in leading all of the main parties in Scotland (apart from the Tories) to pledge that they would not introduce fees. Of course, these pledges owed much to the imminent election; but it was protest and activism that brought these issues into the public realm.

But the occupation also highlighted the importance not to focus all our attention on fees; it opened a debate about the purpose of higher education generally, and the importance of education that is aimed at more than producing a productive workforce. Glasgow University is at the vanguard of the assault on education for its own sake, remodeling itself as a business and focusing on subjects that bring more economic return.

The universities want to keep their cuts behind their paneled double doors, but the occupation has fought to bring the debate about the purpose of universities onto the political agenda – entreating the media, politicians and the public to take an interest in their purpose. Academics at Glasgow have been fiercely opposing the changes, but the focus on the occupation not only demonstrated the united opposition to the measures, but also helped bring the academics’ own perspective to the public’s attention. And it was also no coincidence that shortly after the eviction, the Scottish Education secretary publicly demanded that Glasgow University stop its cuts programme till after the election. And last week, Alex Salmond made a public condemnation of Vice-Chancellor Muscatelli’s approach.

Further, it raised the need to see universities as absolutely central to society: that the level of education, and the environment in which people are educated, is a public concern. The attention brought to higher education by the eviction and reoccupation brought Scottish higher education onto the front pages, leading the public to remember there is much, much more to the debate than the setting of fees. People from across society wrote to papers to express the importance of a higher education system that looks to more than the economy for its aims, that works in the interest of society as a whole, and that is true to the auld Scottish tradition of democratic intellect.

On all these counts, then, the Hetherington has been effective in creating critical space. It is an example of successful protest: protest not simply in the reactionary sense of resisting, but in the positive sense of actively creating the debate and playing an elemental role in shaping public opinion and civil society. It is impossible to judge who is responsible for certain events – in truth, no individual group can be – but there are clear outcomes of this debate that were by no means foregone, and that challenge the economic priorities that often go unchallenged. These successes should act as a spur to other occupation movements and centres of activism across the country.

After a hundred days, the Hetherington is still strong and still blooming. Many people’s lives have changed thanks to the people they have met and the experiences they have had there. And we can be confident that many other people’s lives will change for the better, thanks to the positive impact the collective effort has had on Scottish politics. So here’s to the continuing power of student activism in Britain, and here’s to another hundred days!

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