4 Things I Learnt from Arguing with University Management

by John Murray

13 March 2015

Yesterday a ‘protest summit’ was held at the University of Warwick to discuss the events and aftermath of an extraordinary attack on a sit-in on 3 December in which police used CS spray and drew a Taser. Organised by the Centre for Human Rights in Practice, it featured a panel discussion and debate between representatives of university management and Warwick For Free Education (WFFE). The exchange revealed some key issues:

1. They desperately want free education to be a fringe interest.

Vice Chancellor Nigel Thrift’s main attempt to delegitimise free education activists came from a repeated reference to our supposed failure to represent all students. He called our movement and organisation self-righteous and confrontational, and desperately invoked the ideal subject of the neoliberal university: an apathetic student with a well-developed CV who does their politics in committee meetings.

For a start, none of these ideal subjects spoke. The entire question session consisted of management and the police being peppered with hostile questions and heckled. No one defended them or supported what they have done. What’s more, only a few of these ideal subjects filled out the survey upon which the summit was based: in fact, what emerged out of the survey was an overwhelming level support for the protesters.

Given that the Students’ Union has had a free education policy for five years and WFFE has gained so much momentum recently, Thrift could be forgiven for his desperate attempt to remember what the university was like when students were disempowered and didn’t put up a fight.

This combination of anxiety and nostalgia surely indicates that there is a serious potential for an even broader movement on Warwick campus and nationally. 10,000 students of the £9k generation mobilised to make the positive demand for free education in November. This was not a reactive defence against some new form of legislation, but rather a proactive campaign for a clearly understood goal.

What remains to be done is the hard work of creating, reinforcing and sustaining a local and national infrastructure, and making the popular appeal to students in general. Now is the time to make our arguments in comprehensible terms to as many people as possible, in order to lay the groundwork for a sustained period of generalised struggle.

2. There is no institutional understanding of democracy.

The summit seemed to suggest that the university thinks democracy is another word for committee membership.

Thrift brandished the extensive list of subcommittees and working groups which students were (token) members of as if that was all we could reasonably demand. According to him, we have one of the most exemplary democratic structures in the country.

The university management failed to deal with the fact that democratic student and staff unions have policy after policy which demand changes in the way the university operates. In the SU alone there is policy for free education, better staff pay, the democratic reform of university structures, a lower cost of living on campus and – best of all – no confidence in Nigel Thrift himself.

In one farcical highlight Thrift displayed the breadth of university democracy by mentioning his ‘student suppers’ – invite-only occasions where well-behaved students get to go and eat dinner at the VC’s house. He mentioned the historical failure of the Warwick left to take up these invitations as if deciding not to send individuals to have a cosy dinner with management was a huge betrayal of the fundamental basis of democracy.

The university management wants to interpret democracy as being a system of obscure procedures committed behind closed doors. This has to be contested.

3. Power structures are intimidated by grassroots politics.

In the eyes of the university management, doing your politics outside of the university’s suffocating and deliberately incomprehensible decision-making structures seems to confer onto you a demonic quality.

Our displays of student support and political will were repeatedly defined as being a threat to some notional ‘community’ (a community which presumably excludes us). The very act of self-organised decision making is considered illegitimate and intimidating. Large groups of students being in one place is inevitably a problem for them unless it has been pre-planned with university security, and our ‘dynamic’ behaviour was repeatedly cited as impossible to deal with.

Their escalating paranoia is remarkable. Security now regularly deploy plain-clothes staff to survey the campus – their very own secret police. The fear of the student mob was clearly ringing in their ears.

But attendance at the #copsoffcampus demo on 4 December (in response to the police’s actions) almost exceeded the general turnout for the SU’s all-student votes. The Warwick fossil-free campaign have tried to navigate the channels of university committees by the book, and they are getting sick of it too. There is now a near-universal understanding that the university has lost all democratic legitimacy, and that conducting politics outside of their channels is not only legitimate but essential.

4. The focus on the future is empty jargon.

What was perhaps most striking was that the university management struggled to say anything much at all. The audience sat through speeches which struggled to discover some kind of content, but all that the highly-esteemed ‘critical geographer’ Sir Nigel Thrift could offer in the way of analysis was nebulous fluff.

Apart from the occasional reactionary brain-fart, the management failed to express anything at all. Thrift was supposed to be talking about the ‘future’ (this is after all, Warwick’s 50th anniversary year) but I struggled to see what his future is beyond a perpetuation of the same failing mechanisms. Sometimes it is gratifying to be reassured in your position by the sheer incompetence of your opponents.

It is interesting that certain neoliberal logics have driven managerial discourse to try and work on the terrain of the future – precisely because this is a doomed enterprise. Their future is a continuing debt pile-up, a continuing suppression of dissent, and a continuing reinforcement of structural oppressions. Their future is a slightly better-branded present.

But what the free education movement offers is a future predicated upon getting rid of the systems which have failed us so spectacularly, in order to release the vast potential of education by liberating it.

After the summit WFFE returned to Senate House, and completed the sit-in that was so rudely interrupted on 3 December.

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