The events of the last few days should be recognised for what they are; not just an attack on students and higher education but on our democratic freedoms.
Violent and coercive repression of student activism and protest in general are not new. In 2012 a Cambridge PhD student was suspended for seven terms for reading a poem to universities minister David Willetts. More recently and also in Cambridge, police were found to be spying on student activists for no apparent reason beyond their political opinions. The student movement against tuition fees in 2010 was met with horse charges into packed crowds, kettling and the batoning of young teenagers. Over summer, a current Oxford student was among those held when the Metropolitan Police decided to arrest an entire demonstration of 268 people counter-protesting the English Defence League’s march through Tower Hamlets in London. Michael Mansfield QC, one of Britain’s leading human rights lawyers, warned in 2011 that the right to protest was under severe threat.
This week, however, the suppression of dissent has taken on particularly sharp and nasty forms. Tuesday saw the second national day of industrial action by lecturers alongside non-academic university staff. Academics face a further 1% pay cut after 13% cuts over the last five years, in spite of a £1bn surplus in the higher education sector. In Oxford and nationally, sizeable contingents of students turned out in support of their staff, many also raising their own demands including opposing the sell-off of the student loan book that risks causing spiralling debts for current, former and future students. In London, students peacefully occupied Senate House, the University of London’s management building, with a list of demands including those as basic as holiday pay for staff. In Sussex, where 235 jobs are due to be outsourced, students also went into occupation. The Senate House sit-in was stormed by police, and student campaigners report indiscriminate use of force- video footage shows an officer punching a protester in the face. At Sussex five organisers were arrested, including elected student union officers. At a responding demonstration the following day against police brutality in London, a further thirty-four arrests were made, including one of a journalist covering the event! This comes after a woman writing a message in chalk in support of a campaign for basic labour rights for University of London cleaners was arrested by 16 officers and strip-searched. In short we have witnessed a brutal and disproportionate response, sanctioned by university managements, against students doing nothing more than peacefully gathering in university spaces to defend fair funding for education and decent pay for their staff.
It is particularly ironic that as public figures everywhere wheel out supportive clichés about the importance and power of protest in a democratic society in response to Nelson Mandela’s death, those same freedoms are being torn away under our feet. The message being sent out by security forces, police and university management is not just one of hostility to current demonstrations. It is designed to intimidate and to send a clear warning that those who attempt to express dissent outside of the most constrained boundaries are unwelcome and will be met with all the force that can be deployed against them. It is the pinnacle of an ongoing process of removing all obstacles in the way of the current government’s ideological crusade of restructuring. Student loans are being sold off, the cap on tuition fees risks being lifted yet again, thousands of university staff are being sacked, placed on pitiful wages or zero-hour contracts, courses are being closed, resources sold off and student places cut. The inevitability of a justifiably angry response from those who value education has led to this repressive reaction. Managements and ministers are not interested in negotiating or debating our future. They would prefer to simply crush anything that gets in their way, and if that means blood running across the pavement outside the University of London Union, then so be it.
A national day of action against repression and police brutality on our campuses has been called for this coming Wednesday at 2pm. For those still in Oxford, transport to the London demonstration will be arranged. It is crucial that all those who believe that protest is a right and should not be silenced are there.