Occupy movement hits Oxford

A group of students campaigning under the name “Occupy Brookes” has set up tents and banners outside the reception at the university’s Gipsy Lane campus.

The protest group, composed of Brookes students and staff, has been camping outside the campus since Wednesday last week with a core of ten protesters staying each night and up to 20 more joining them during the daytime.  They are organising talks, workshops and even samba classes and acoustic music evenings at the site.

Ivana Popov, an English and Anthropology student and spokesperson for the group, has stated that the occupation aims to bring attention to the “increasing marketisation” of education, and more specifically to Brookes’ new system of bursaries and fee waivers.

Occupy Brookes argues that the new system of student financial support will result in less funding for bursaries by allocating more money to fee waivers. The group argues that the introduction of fee waivers to reduce the cost of degrees, described as a “con trick” by NUS President Liam Burns, will not benefit most graduates unless they go on to earn in excess of £35,000 per annum. They say that giving bursaries to undergraduates “puts money into the hands of those who need it most, when they need it most”.

In an open letter to Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes, the group has called for her to make a public statement condemning the hike in tuition fees, and stating the university’s support for the principle of free public education. The group also asks for a commitment to abolish the proposed fee waiver scheme in favour of bursaries and a change in the university’s senior management style to give more power to ordinary academic staff.

The campaign is endorsed by the Oxford Green Party and has also attracted support from the university’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor of student experience, John Raftery, who tweeted: “#Brookes students making their voices heard. They prefer bursaries to fee waivers. If you support, then tweet to #occupybrookes”.

Popov expressed delight at the level of support from university staff, stating that a number of them had brought tarpaulins for the students and even assisted them with drafting press releases and the open letter to the Vice-Chancellor.

In response to the protesters’ criticism of the new fee waiver scheme, Matthew Butler, the university’s Senior Communications Officer, said: “Oxford Brookes University offers what we believe is a sector-leading package of support for students. In total, the package amounts to £3.5 million to provide bursaries of up to £2,000 per year and fee waivers of £2,500 per year.” He also stated that Oxford Brookes was entirely supportive of the students’ right to protest and was indeed providing them with all necessary facilities. Professor Beer was unavailable for comment.

Occupy Brookes has said it plans to stay at the Gipsy Lane site for “as long as it takes”, and will not move until they feel their concerns have been properly addressed by the Vice-Chancellor.

However, one first year at Brookes said: “I’ve seen it out the front of the Gipsy Lane campus but in all honesty I haven’t heard anything about it except through the ‘signs’ they’ve hung up on their tents. “

A student from Wadham College commented that the protest was “a fantastic idea and particularly important as the issue of fee waivers versus bursaries was a practical issue that a student protest could positively influence”.

The “Occupy Brookes” campsite is now into its second week as protestors continue to oppose their university’s decision to cut bursaries. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg visited Oxford Brookes on the 2010 campaign trail, emphasising his commitment to higher education – the subsequent rise in tuition fees to £9,000 per year has incensed the activists occupying the Gipsy Lane campus. “Occupy Brookes” is the latest in a number of demonstrations inspired by the occupations of Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange.