student anti-cuts occupations have management running scared

by Tali Janner-Klausner

This academic year, an ever-increasing number of students are seeing budget cuts at their university translate into sacked staff and lecturers, cutbacks of university support services such as counseling, whole departments threatened with closure and the like.

However with this has come a burgeoning anti-cuts movement across the country, with many new campaigns set up on individual campuses.

Some campaigns have taken the stance that their department should be saved at the expense of another, but many others have been imaginative, militant and oriented towards working with staff.

Many students are taking political action for the first time and have a lot to gain, both practically and in terms of their own perspectives on the situation, from coordinating with others. Meanwhile the threat of higher tuition fees looms just past the general election.

In response to this, the National Convention Against Fees and Cuts was held in early February at University College London. 150-odd students from universities, colleges and schools throughout the country came and attended workshops on practical issues like working with trade unions on and off campus, as well as theoretical discussions such as what sort of education do we want.

Regional networks were set up and in the final session, the conference voted to form the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and call for a wave of action on campuses, starting from 1st March.

This has got off to a great start, especially considering the stagnation of the British student movement in the past two decades and the burden of a right wing NUS that no longer even calls for free education. Just two days after the Convention, over 100 students at Sussex University, which is facing a catastrophic £8 million in budget cuts over the next two academic years, occupied the conference room at their campus and held it for two days.

Soon after, a mass meeting of students, lecturers and staff at Westminster University voted no confidence in their Vice-Chancellor, with the prospect of 190 academic and 90 administrative job losses while management salaries have gone up at an average of 25%.

A week and a half later, a protest against cuts stormed the governors meeting and proceeded to take over the Vice Chancellor’s office, and then occupied main management and administration rooms of the university for three days, supported by Westminster UCU. Leeds University’s anti-cuts campaign joined UCU members at a demonstration against cuts. Powerful, quick bursts of action such as these that challenge the very idea of who controls the university have started to frighten university managements.

At the University of East Anglia a well-attended protest on March 3rd  was accompanied by a heavy police presence, disgracefully called in by the university management.

On the same day, a large protest and sit-in was held at UCL and the Sussex UCU branch voted overwhelmingly to take strike action later in the month. There was also a brief occupation the university, which was met with disgraceful police violence – riot police with dogs and pepper spray attacked the protesters and picked off individuals. Following this, six students were suspended for thirty days and threatened with expulsion, and a High Court Injunction was granted to the Vice Chancellor prohibiting protest on campus!

These are the actions of a management that is running scared, trying to make an example of a few students so as to intimidate many. In fact, this unjust reaction has galvanized students at Sussex, who have begun a campaign of photographing hundreds of students holding signs declaring “I occupied Sussex House”.

There was also a well attended teach-in held at Kings College London, organized by the No Cuts at Kings campaign and the UCU left and SWP lead London Education Activists Network. It was noted at the conference that restricting all managerial salaries at Kings to £100,000, about four times the national average wage, would save £9 million, while the proposed cuts  would  see the back of 10% of staff and the closure of at least one department. This is a familiar story for many universities.

Citing the Treasury’s apparent need to claw back money from public services due to the recession, Peter Mandelson has announced a reduction of £449million in overall higher education spending this year alone, with worse likely to come whoever wins the election this spring.

The fact that higher education now comes under Lord Mandelson’s remit as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is one of many indicators that these cuts are part of a wider trend of sweeping neoliberal “reforms”, to subordinate education to the needs of business and capital. Schemes such as the National Student Survey champion the notion that students are consumers.

By this logic, tuition fees are a necessary part of the transaction, as is the increasing proliferation of managerial hierarchies modeled on the business world, at the expense of academic freedom and teaching quality. The priorities of the government are clear – the number of managers at universities has risen over three times as fast as academics since 20032. Universities UK, the insidious organisation of British Vice-Chancellors, defended this by saying that universities have a broader role these days, which included “forging much closer links with business”.

But the NCAFC and many others are fighting for universities that are about students themselves, and the value of education for its own sake. Meanwhile more actions are planned in the near future, nationally and on individual campuses, and the UCU is gearing up for a coordinated strike day on 29th April. We have a long way to go, but the fightback against cuts in Britain can start to consider itself a force to be reckoned with.

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