Free University: the new wave of student occupations

London students have been occupying their universities since March. They explain why.

Ben Wilson Aidan Harper Eva-Grace Bor
10 April 2015
 Ben Wilson.

Occupy KCL. Credit: Ben Wilson.

King's College London Occupation: March 25 – ongoing 

Ben Wilson

The occupation at King’s College London operates under the 'Free University' banner that has sprung up in Quebec, Amsterdam, across London, and is gaining traction elsewhere in the world.

The Free University movement aims to change the way universities function, with each occupation holding a set of demands specific to its own institution. Most of us want to open dialogue around free and alternative forms of education, while opposing the ongoing marketization of the university system.

It is easy to see how these general principles have shaped Occupy KCL’s demands. Since starting our occupation on March 25, we have called for King’s to address its current investment practice, which has allowed for indirect share holdings of university money in the fossil fuel, tobacco and arms manufacturing industries. We also want to ensure the fair treatment of academic and outsourced support staff at the university. We were briefly evacuated due to an electrical fire in Holborn, but returned the following week. 

Our demands directly challenge the lack of accountability that comes with a bureaucratic administration's headlong dash toward financial expansion. By demanding that King’s do more to support and accommodate marginalized and oppressed groups, and to make itself more accessible to students of all backgrounds, Occupy KCL is forcing the college administration to acknowledge that there are still inherent systems of privilege in the way the university runs; systems which benefit some and push others farther and farther to the peripheries.

But it is not just through these demands that the occupation movement seeks to create change at King’s – the very nature of the protest is doing so already. The College Council room, usually used as a meeting room by the administration’s highest decision-making body, has become an inclusive space that is open to all, with a safe space and hand signal policy to ensure that all voices can be heard equally.

The lavishly decorated room, hung with portraits of the Duke of Wellington (whose descendants still sit as de facto head of our College Council today) is covered now with banners, posters and flyers made by occupiers about why the movement, and free education, is so important for them. We have made it into a space for sharing ideas and discussion, where previously it would be rented out for private functions at large sums of money, or policy meetings with barely any representation of the student and staff bodies.

Now, it is used to host workshops on subjects like workers’ rights, ethical investment, or the implementation of policies like Prevent and the new Counter Terrorism Bill that could drastically affect many of us.

London School of Economics Occupation: ongoing 

Aidan Harper 

For many of us, the occupation has been a transformative experience.

We were fed up with just talking, just reading, and just writing about how we wanted the world to be and decided, once and for all, to put our ideals into action.

Contemporary student politics is paralyzed, unrecognizable from the radical actions of past generations. We have been infantilized by an excessively bureaucratic, managerial education system. We are supposed to passively float through university, unquestionably accepting the way everything is ordered around us. 

The occupation empowered us; we actively challenged the system around us, which we had tacitly accepted up until this point – despite our widespread disillusionment with it. A conversation in a pub; a handful of texts; a meeting – that’s all it took. Suddenly, everyone was filled with an electricity which stemmed from a very real sense of independence. For the first time at university, we had made a truly independent choice. 

We defined the structure and the space ourselves. We held consensus meetings in which everyone could have a fair say and in which all choices were made as a group. We had a series of highly organized working groups – media, logistics, research, propaganda, program. We divided our days into a series of talks, protests, meetings and socials. We spoke to press, invited academics, released statements and held constructive talks with management. We took the incentive. The level of organization, dedication and cooperation from first year students to PhD candidates was staggering.

Most importantly though, we realized that we were not alone in our dissatisfaction with the current state of the university system. Our protests and meetings involved support staff, trade unions and lecturers. We drew up a series of demands which reflected the dissatisfactions of each group of people – this was not just about the students and we did not want to isolate ourselves from the struggles of other groups. Their goals are inextricably linked to our own.

 Goldsmiths Occupation.

Credit: Goldsmiths Occupation.

Goldsmiths Occupation: March 26 - ended April 8

Eva-Grace Bor 

The Goldsmiths occupation was about more than challenging the university’s management, it was about creating an example of the kind of learning institution and community hub we want to see.

What began as a proposed flash occupation in solidarity with University of the Arts London (UAL), KCL and the LSE on 26 March, garnered support way beyond what the original group of 30 occupiers expected. We occupied Deptford Town Hall in South London, near to Goldsmiths, retitling it Deptford Cultural Centre of Free Education. We ended the occupation on April 8, in response to a deadline from Goldsmiths management to avoid making our agreements with them void.

Our student-led film-screenings, talks and workshops and guest talks and words of encouragement from external speakers proved that there is a real need for a space that is self-directed and inclusive, to house innovative, creative activity.

The sound of music students playing the Steinway piano in the great hall above resonated, as familiar faces returned through our doors with new supporters in tow. Having access to the music facilities in the building was precisely because of our presence, the space would usually be closed due to the Easter break – the poor utilising of the former Deptford Town Hall is one of our primary points of concern. 

Banners tied to the railings outside the grade 2 listed building declared our opposition to cuts to counseling services and the disabled students' allowance (DSA). Our list of demands conveyed the myriad issues affecting students, staff and academics, including the euro-centricity of the curriculum, international student fee increases, insufficient representation for marginalised students and pay disparity. 

We challenged these, calling for full financial transparency, regular open student forums where we are included in decision-making processes, full-time women’s and Black and Minority Ethnic officer positions and for an end to out-sourcing staff, to ensure job security and avoid redundancies.

For many of us, it was our first occupation. We were not versed in the legalities and logistics of political protest. We are simply students who realize that critique of neoliberal systems only goes so far, and that it’s up to us to imagine and create the change we want to see.

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