Occupy, Strike, Resist: 3 Lessons from the Warwick Occupation

by Clare Hymer and Connor Woodman

18 December 2016

Josh McNamee

On Friday morning, it was announced that Warwick for Free Education (WFFE) – an activist group at the University of Warwick who have for the past fortnight occupied a £5.3 million conference facility on campus – have won large concessions from the university on their demands. These demands – that the university oppose the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), agree to fair teaching conditions for hourly-paid academic staff, and scrap the protest injunction currently in place across Warwick’s campus – all speak to wider trends in the marketisation of UK higher education institutions, the casualisation of the labour market, and the repression of student protest.

Like so many student occupations in recent years, the occupiers reimagined the space as one of collaborative political education. Students and staff came together for a diverse range of open events, from talks on the border industry to direct action workshops and film screenings.

Occupations have long been used by students as a tactic for forcing political and economic change, and while the occupiers at Warwick did not win their demands outright, they won concessions from university management on all three, and one demand in full. Here are three key reasons why the occupation at Warwick worked.

1. The occupation was the product of two years of movement building.

Since 2010, the student movement has expanded the conception of ‘free education’ to mean ‘free’ in all senses: liberated, critical, and decolonised. WFFE has been popularising the demands and politics of free education on campus for over two years, and the occupation was a culmination of that work. When the time came, networks of solidarity were already in place both on campus and beyond to sustain the occupation and ensure its success.

The occupation’s first demand was that the university oppose the TEF: a neoliberal state-imposed mechanism for generating competition in higher education. The TEF will rank universities either bronze, silver or gold, with their ranking ostensibly based on the quality of their teaching. In reality, the metrics incentivise universities to subordinate teaching to the interests of the upper echelons of our economy, and higher-scoring institutions will be allowed to raise their fees far above £9,000 per year. Although the TEF is a component of the recent HE bill, it constitutes part of an extended project by recent governments to marketise and increasingly privatise higher education, something WFFE has been fighting against since the group’s inception.

Although Warwick refused to opt out of the TEF, the university’s vice chancellor has condemned the HE reforms and declared that the TEF “will not measure teaching excellence”. That Warwick – famously branded ‘Warwick University Ltd.’ by the late E. P. Thompson – has taken such a strong stance against the higher education reforms is in no small part a product of the arguing and agitation WFFE has undertaken for two years.

2. There was solidarity between staff and students.

Another key reason for the students’ success was that they fought in mutual solidarity with academic staff. The occupiers’ second demand – that the university agree to fair teaching conditions – was set out in explicit support of Warwick Anti-Casualisation, a group fighting for stable contracts, equal employment rights, and fair remuneration for hourly-paid academic staff at Warwick.

In early 2015, students and staff at Warwick came together to smash TeachHigher, an internal outsourcing scheme intended as a model for the sector which would increase precarity and exploitation within academia. Recognising that “teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions”, activists have been campaigning in a joint student-staff network since then, overwhelmingly persuading Warwick’s academic community to come out against Prevent and the higher education reforms. In turn, staff ran events, brought supplies and organised externally in support of the occupation.

The occupation has won further victories for the lowest paid academic staff: the university has agreed to revise the existing recognition agreement with the Warwick University and College Union (UCU) branch to fully include hourly-paid teachers in the remit of UCU’s formal negotiation and collective bargaining processes. This was a major barrier for the anti-casualisation campaign at Warwick, as without the power of collective bargaining, hourly-paid tutors would be forced to negotiate on conditions individually. This victory may set a precedent for the whole HE sector.

Cross-sectoral solidarity should not be limited to academic staff: students and staff have come together at SOAS – and more recently, the LSE – to fight for justice for cleaners. These collaborations demonstrate recognition that assaults on workers’ right and the casualisation of staff are an assault on everyone – and that unified struggle multiplies the strength of all. The result: LSE cleaners just won the London Living Wage of £9.75 per hour.

3. The occupiers used economic disruption as leverage.

While media stunts can be powerful, greater leverage is often found in disrupting the flow of capital. By targeting a new multimillion pound conference facility, purpose built for generating surplus revenue, the occupiers spoke in a language neoliberal university managers understand: money.

The occupation began just as the building was set to open for conference season. Not only this, but the occupiers were willing to bunker down for Christmas, forcing management to the table. The choice of building also minimised the inevitable backlash, harming corporate conference-dwellers rather than students.

This economic pressure forced Warwick to cede completely to WFFE’s final demands: the two-year-old injunction against occupations is going to be immediately dropped, and the university has released a statement expressing “deep regret” for its complicity in the police violence on campus on 3 Dec 2014. These are demands WFFE has been struggling to win for over two years, and in the end it was determined and well-planned direct action won them.

The occupation at Warwick is a reminder that disruptive direct action can win real material gains and shift the balance of power between students and university management. With the government’s reforms threatening to gut public higher education, there is an urgent need for the student movement to utilise these tactics once again. Students and staff: go forth and occupy.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.