UK students pay heavily for peaceful protest

UK students pay heavily for peaceful protest

Thu Jul 24, 2014 11:36AM GMT

We have both just been suspended from the University of Birmingham for nine months because of our part in an occupation that took place last November.

This year the university has collectively had us arrested three times, taken out an injunction banning us from occupational protest for a year, put us through a stressful nine-month-long disciplinary process, suspended us for two months, reinstated us briefly just to suspend us again only one month away from graduation.

Another student, Hattie Craig, has been given a six-month suspended sentence, meaning that if she breaks any university regulation between now and when she graduates she will immediately be suspended for six months. Publicly stating opposition to the actions of the University of Birmingham could end up with her being suspended on the basis that she brought the university into disrepute.

The University of Birmingham is trying to hide behind the quasi-legal process that it uses to conduct disciplinary actions. We were denied access to legal representation, despite us submitting multiple requests. The hearings were not held to any of the same evidential standards that would be required in a court: decisions were made on the balance of probabilities, and the outcomes shielded from scrutiny because the university does not allow recordings or take full notes.

Higher education in the UK is changing fast. The distinctions between universities and the private sector are being eroded by the government and university managers. The University of Birmingham has played a central role in this ongoing marketization. The vice chancellor David Eastwood (paid £400,000 for the privilege) sat on the Browne review that led to £9,000 tuition fees and a market in higher education; and he has restructured the university to the demands of business. Successful and famous courses such as archaeology, sociology and biological recording have been closed down when they don’t fit with a narrow business logic.

The university’s statement says that “robust action” has been taken to maintain the university’s “duty of care” to its students and staff. These are the students and staff who have resisted changes at the university, and have condemned the attacks on academic autonomy, workers’ rights and student protest. Staff unions at Birmingham have complained about heavy-handed management, leading them to successfully ballot for a strike in 2012. Last year a court found that Thelma Lovick, a prominent neuroscientist, was unfairly dismissed in a process described by Professor David Nutt as both “cock-up and conspiracy”.

What is happening at Birmingham is an example of the kind of education system that is being created in this country. The idea that university should be a critical place where students and staff can and should interrogate and challenge the status quo is under attack. At the same time, more and more students and workers are realizing that our interests are opposed to those of a neoliberal higher education system. This year saw the biggest wave of action that we have seen in universities since 2010. Staff at universities had a wave of national strikes, while students across the country went into occupation. Next year – with the main parties soon to announce their manifestos for the next election – the student movement is only going to get stronger.

The changes to higher education that the government implemented in 2010 were supposed to usher in a new era of student choice and student control. Though we never asked for them and actively resisted the changes, their supposed intention was to empower the student consumer. Instead, marketization has created universities that are increasingly intolerant of dissent, will use the power of the police and the courts against their own students, put us through long stressful kangaroo courts, and will ultimately give out draconian sentences to try to scare others off from protesting. Just as the police had to violently beat students away from the fees vote in parliament, universities are using every means at their disposal to prevent students from interfering with their new logic of neoliberalism. We didn’t go away then, and we are not going to give up now.

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