As some of you may now be aware, I have been taking part in the occupation of Senate Chambers in the Aston Webb Building since it began on Wednesday evening. The decision to join was not an easy one for me to make. Since becoming a sabbatical officer, having met many students suffering from stress due to dire finical straits and staff struggling to make ends meet, I have understood that drastic change needs to happen. As I will explain in this blog, I have come to realise that this change will not come about simply through sitting in university meetings. I decided in good conscience to join the occupation and use this to fight for a fairer, more democratic university.
On Monday, I will be appearing in court against the university. To target me, they have named me on the possession order and injunction they are seeking and are asking that I, along with another defendant and ex-sabbatical officer, Simon Furse, pay their legal costs which could amount to thousands of pounds. I feel I have been singled out, not only because I am recognisable by senior management, but as a tactic to intimidate me as a sabbatical officer of the Guild of Students. This is a political move on their part. They are telling me to behave and go along with their agenda, disagreeing only within the narrow parameters they set, or I will be made to pay. They do not want sabbatical officers, who have a platform to expose the university when they act against student interests and who can empower students to take action which the university does not want, to fulfil either of these roles. I believe they know full well the names of others inside the occupation; this is a standard political move to isolate and attack individuals in a movement.
I want to explain my actions and I’ll begin by talking about the reasons why I feel it is entirely appropriate for me to be here as Vice-President Education. This occupation is about education. It’s about the representation of students in the university and their current lack of power. It’s about stopping our Vice Chancellor for arguing for increased fees, demanding better rights for the staff who make our education possible and ensuring that every student can afford to come to university. Many of the demands correspond to my manifesto which was: empowering students to fight against course cuts, closures and redundancies, giving students a greater say in their education and creating a level playing field for all students regardless of background. I want what the occupation wants. The platform I stood on is the same as the one now being presented by the occupation.
One argument I have seen floating around is that people agree with the demands of the occupation but not their tactics so this is something else I want to address. Sabbatical Officers are ultimately there to try to bring about positive change for the student body. Some students seem to believe that this is done through going to meetings and having a “good relationship” with the university. I have spent the last 4 months attending countless meetings with the university. I have always been polite and co-operative, aiming to work with the university to bring about changes which I feel are desperately needed. For months, my frustration has been building, but finding a way to clearly articulate what I guess I presumed all along has been difficult. It’s time to face up: we don’t achieve the change we want through attending university meetings.
I sit on some of the “higher level” committees of the university, such as Education Committee, Quality Assurance, and Senate. These are almost exclusively “rubber-stamping” bodies – decisions about what is going to happen in the university have been made long before these committees meet. Papers very rarely get rejected, with many from senior management already being aware of their content and the final approval from the meeting being simply a formality. In these situations, sabbs have very little opportunity to fundamentally change anything. Sure, I might mention a section of the paper which I have some concerns about and generally these will be “noted”, with the paper being approved anyway. Sometimes this concern will be taken seriously and something done about it, often it will be ignored completely. Either way, it is important to remember that this change is just tinkering: a minor alteration to a policy which is going to happen whether we like it or not. These are not places for us to bring the change we want to see, but rather for the university to get us to accept the changes they are making. Their ability to set the agenda and ignore our requests demonstrate the lack of power that we as sabbatical officers have. Speaking truth to power simply doesn’t work at this university.
If we, as sabbatical officers and “student representatives”, have very little ability to change the minds and actions of the University management, then what about the student body at large? In the vast majority of meetings I sit in, I am the only student. I can try as hard as I want to represent “all students” but I simply do not know the views and nor had have the same experiences as the 28,000 students at Birmingham. Having one sabbatical officer, sitting tokenisticly on a rubber-stamping committee which is arguing over minute changes is not giving students a say in how their university is run. Having the university decide what committees it is appropriate or relevant for students to sit on is not giving us a say. The powers granted to student reps extend only to their ability to ask the department to change certain aspects of their academic experience over which they have control. I and other sabbatical officers only sit on committees which are seen as “related” to the student experience. There is no representation on those “working groups” which decide admissions targets, whether or not to shut down a department, or whether we should be setting up operations overseas. All of these affect students greatly, yet we are seen more as customers to be enticed and catered for, not as members of a community which should decide the direction of the university, relegating student representatives to the role of market researchers. The very fact that management have chosen to pay significant sums of money to remove their own students, criminalising them and anyone else who takes part in anything they consider to be “occupation protest action”, rather than speaking to concerned students about what they feel needs to change so badly that they are willing to give up their time and effort and risk disciplinary action to do so, shows their utter contempt for the views of students when they do not suit their own agenda. There is no democracy here. Democracy is something the university will never give to us if we just ask for it in a meeting because it fundamentally undermines the power of senior management to act in whatever way they see fit.
This is why the last few months have led to believe even more in the importance students taking direct action such as occupations. I have tried sitting in meetings and going along with the university’s agenda, but I know that it doesn’t matter how nicely I ask, most of the things I want to change they will never agree to because they don’t want to and they don’t have to. We have so little power as sabbatical officers or students. Going against what the university wants and acting in ways which disrupt their operation changes the balance. It gives them a reason to listen to what we want. It shows them that students can have power if we so choose. It makes them realise that we are not simply passive recipients to whatever education, rights and conditions they see fit to give us. Direct action also makes the media pay attention. In a time where reputation and admissions figures are so intimately linked to a university’s finances, exposing the university for the wrong that they are committing is another powerful way to make them sit up and pay attention. Most of all, direct action is empowering. You no longer feel helpless. You see that the university is not an impenetrable force and that your actions can affect them greatly. It is these kind of actions which inspire students to care about issues within their university and campaign on them. This is exactly what I think student representatives should be doing. We should be creating the climate and conditions for the student body to be active in creating change. In this, I feel the occupation has already been successful. We have seen people who have never before been part in activism getting involved and campaigning on education issues.
For these reasons I stand by my decision to join the occupation. It is not up to the university to determine the appropriate manner for me to represent students. It does not matter what measures the university uses to intimidate me, this will not stop me from calling them out on decisions which damage the interest of students or deter me from taking action in defense and for the improvement of the education of students now and in the future. I would like to say thank you to all those who have supported me as an individual, the aims of the occupation and everyone inside it. None of this would have been possible without you. No matter what happens in court tomorrow, our campaign for a fairer, more democratic is not over. Solidarity.
To find out more about the occupation visit: http://www.defendeducationbrum.org/statement-on-the-occupation-of-senate-chambers/
Protest outside the court tomorrow at 10am: https://www.facebook.com/events/165987633610690/
Protest on campus tomorrow at 2pm: https://www.facebook.com/events/176694295859418/