Violence, vandalism and higher education

Last week, 150 student protesters were penned by the police into an area of Birmingham University campus for 4 hours. The Birmingham student guild released a statement condemning the protest. Here, one of its officers speaks out in defence of the students.

Tom Wragg
3 February 2014

photo: Lou Macnamara

From Wednesday till now I've been wrestling with a multiplicity of different views on the demonstration and occupation led by students, and the subsequent police and security kettling of said students on a biting and blustery winter’s evening.

As a sabbatical officer in a student union, I found out about a statement my student union put out after I’d got home that concerned only its own shiny reputation rather than the welfare of its students. These individuals were acting in line with its values, beliefs and commitments as a body that aims to advance the interests of students at the University of Birmingham. Due to its weak and reactionary position, its reputation was - I would argue - damaged by this statement.

Now, this latest national demonstration for a free, just and democratic education at the University of Birmingham and across the UK was not ‘pretty’ on the surface. What it did have, however, was conviction, a strong set of beliefs which didn’t match the management’s or the government’s. Demonstrations involve individuals expressing themselves - their anger, their discontent, their voice, whatever - in an arena, together. To raise it. To affect the people in power. This is dissent. This is what you do when you don’t get to make a decision or influence a decision. This is what you do when you’ve been trying to advocate for the opposite of what is being done by the people in power. People have been raising dissent against people in power for millennia; this is what happens when their legitimacy is challenged.

The students (not consumers) came to university to be educated, engaged in critical thinking, challenged. They are lured in by shiny videos of smiling people, thick brochures and the promise of a good future. They arrive and begin to accumulate debt. In recent years they’ve started accumulating debt more and more, being taught less and less - student-centred study they call it; only they don’t teach you how to learn. The process of going to university aims to teach you how to teach yourself. It should aim to make you think about things critically. It should enhance your divergent thinking. The people who work with you (seminar tutors, dissertation tutors, lecturers, teachers) want to encourage this. But they are not given the time. They must hit KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). They must ‘enhance student satisfaction’ for the NSS (National Student Survey). They must maximise efficiency and output. Produce a product for the market. You are a commodity. You are no longer a student and they are no longer a teacher.

Ideally I’d rather not have to talk about stuff being broken and graffiti on walls on our beautiful red brick campus. It’s a touchy subject. I’d rather not confront it. But following the demonstration on Wednesday a door was broken and some graffiti was left on our nice red bricks. Some of those things were spelt wrong too (yes, students spell things wrong sometimes).

After this (I imagine) students went outside and tried to leave the Great Hall. At this point they were stopped, penned in, boiled up in a kettle in a courtyard at the back of the Aston Webb building. The Superintendent said “it wasn’t kettling”. If you don’t describe the tactic that looks a lot like kettling and lasted for hours on end, aggravating and tiring students (one to the point of a panic attack) as kettling, then I don’t know what is. It is not OK to require people to give their details as a condition of release from a situation where they’ve been trapped without basic human rights. It’s apparently not lawful either (Susannah Mengesha v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, June 2013).

Many of the people involved in these demonstrations, aiming to change something bigger than themselves, have tried talking, they’ve been elected, they’ve sat at the table, they’ve been told “no” over and over and over by white men in grey suits. They don’t suggest they represent you, but they do care about you - the student who’s got to pay back tens of thousands of pounds for an education their parents’ generation received for free.

If the management of our university got their way there’d be unlimited tuition fees, where the individual is not a member of a society and has no moral requirement to give anything back to the society that created them. Let’s live Milton Friedman’s dream, where there is nothing that society could benefit from with an educated population(!)

“But it’ll cut the deficit! We need to cut the deficit” No, stop bailing out banks. Even RBS, which is 83% publicly owned, is choosing to pay its executives huge bonuses - because getting a bonus for making risky investments, wrecking the planet and destabilising countries is totally fine. The leaders of our government are trying to stop the cap on bankers’ bonuses - because doing anything to restrict bankers’ bonuses would be restricting freedom (lol jk).

The students who’ve taken out loans for their UK education from 1998 onwards are having their debt transferred from the public sector to the private sector. Favourable loan conditions? Not any more. A repayment threshold? Who needs that? In the USA, there is over a trillion dollars of student debt, an average of $30,000 per person who’s been through the system (regardless of whether they graduated or benefited financially from it). If you can’t pay it back, the government will not be bailing you out.

Let’s think again about what violence is… Violence is when a homeless person is arrested for begging. Violence is when you get stopped and searched because you are not white. Violence is when you are put in a small bright room with no sunlight for over a day for not giving your details to a person you’ve never met after they wouldn’t let you out of a cold, dark, windy courtyard that you’d been kept in for hours and hours without food, water or access to a toilet. Violence is being told to take your clothes off so that same person, or their mate, can check you over, whether you like it or not. Violence is being pulled to the floor by your hair. Violence is being kicked out of your house because you can’t pay back your loan. Violence is being told you’re worth nothing whilst you’re cleaning up after someone who has everything. Violence is not broken glass. Violence is not property damage when you’re being pushed around. Violence is not writing “FREE EDUCATION NOW” on some bricks with chalk or spray paint. Violence is putting your career before people’s well-being. Violence is telling people who earn a tenth of your wage that they should accept an increase of less than how much their mortgage or rent, food, energy and childcare costs increased last year, and then taking a wage increase which is equal to their whole salary, and then sending those people an email telling them not to challenge your decision because it was in line with or above the national average. Violence is making a decision you will gain from and everyone below you will lose from. Violence is deciding to destroy students’ futures for your personal gain. Violence is having to mask your identity for fear of victimisation and repression for your actions that seek to benefit others.  

In the context of this protest, the question of violence really boils down to who the power lies with, the ability of that power to be challenged and for the furthering of what aims to benefit whom.


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