Crisis and cliché: a history

[The Students’ Union feature](/features/2010/apr/27/imagine-future-without-su/) in the last issue of the _Boar_ offered a glimpse into a horrific dystopia: a future without the Union. After predicting a huge budget shortfall in mid March, the SU told the _Boar_ just how grim its prospects seemed – assuming they can’t pull the required £100,000 out of the bag by the start of the next academic year. If Derek Hatley’s article made itself heard amidst the clamour and cacophony of term three revision, then this second feature offers a follow-up perspective on how students have changed over the years, in terms of our activism, the issues we face, and our involvement in the Union.

One of the most favoured clichés at this University is ‘Red Warwick’, and its beguiling other half, ‘Warwick PLC’. The latter is immanent in a way that God could never achieve; we see the commercialisation of our institution in everything from the corporate colours flying high on ‘intellectual capital’ flagpoles, to the purely commercial use of (formerly educational) space on campus. As for ‘Red Warwick’, this exhausted idiom gets trotted out by the _Boar_ at the merest whiff of student radicalism; so much so that it has lost a lot of its potency. Once upon a time, back in ’68, it was probably appropriate, but over forty years later and it should really be retired, or, much preferably, re-earned.

Institutional memories are cripplingly short in universities. Particularly when we look back into the pre-digital age (for the sake of argument, that can fairly be said to refer to pretty much all but the last decade), what few records are left are lost, scattered, or locked away unbeknown to the majority of the student body. A few of the more historically established societies will have their own folklore. The political hacks, Sabbaticals and _Boar_ journalists might have some vague knowledge of past events, though the facts are often scrambled and confused over time. By way of an example, in the course of researching for this article, one of the RAG exec stumbled across the origin of the RAG Week ‘gnoming’ tradition, so named, it transpires, because people dressed as gnomes used to follow around, and generally harass the unfortunate student.

This example is a charming gem of tradition clutched from the jaws of obscurity, but it is fairly irrelevant in the broader history of radicalism and struggle in the University. The Modern Records Centre and the Students’ Union both have incomplete archives dating back to the mid 60s, containing copies of the _Giblet_, _Campus_, and the _Boar_, though the Union archives are so valuable they are kept in a locked cupboard, and so little known they are rarely requested. In short, our University history is just too easily lost – or locked away, which amounts to the same.

Sporadic though they may be, the archives are vast; it would be impossible to offer an in-depth account of every structural change, every political shift, and every election result from the last forty-five years. Instead, I want to offer a few examples of Union-led campaigns from the late 70s, and the mid to late 80s, which are mirrored both in subject and rhetoric with events from the last year or two – things like the car parking price hikes, departmental closures and mergers, occupations and (proposed) tuition fee increases.

The purpose of this is simply to show how things once were, and how they could be. Let’s not romanticise: Union campaigns and protests ‘back in the day’ often ended in failure. If they hadn’t then the current state of our higher education would be gloriously utopian: free and radical. Sadly, common student debts of £25,000 and renewed affronts to the price of a degree seem to indicate that our predecessors lost more fights than they won. Still, after over 20 years of Thatcher’s marketisation agenda, we could have found ourselves in a far worse state. I suppose we’ll never know.

Caveats and disclaimers aside then, we can scrutinise the ‘Red Warwick’ legend. The first thing to say is that Warwick did have a heyday, and it was a depressingly long time ago. Students were more political, more radical, less isolated from the local community. But certainly not everyone was. The outgoing editor of _Campus_, Christian Wolmar, opined in May 1969 how: “I cannot refrain from using the word “apathy”, (up till now I have never used it). What apathy means is acceptance, acceptance of the social, political, educational plats which are put in front of us the day we are born…All one needs to escape from the title apathetic is one interest, one subject one is prepared to do something about, but it’s amazing how many fail even that simple test. This is undoubtedly the most depressing thing about University.”

Wolmar’s lament was echoed throughout the pages of _Boar_ editorials and letters sections for the years to follow, just as it is today. It is perhaps telling that my very first contribution to the _Boar_ in 2007 was on apathy; this, most likely my last contribution cannot rightly avoid it either. In fact, all of our most common criticisms of the SU were doing the rounds long before we were born.

The recent outcry at the sacking of Isaac Newton Acquah by Union Council – what thousands felt to be an injustice at the hands of a tiny, barely democratic clique – resonates with age-old dissatisfaction with Union General Meetings (UGMs) and CV-serving ‘political hacks’. As one commentator wrote in 1987: “[Everything at UGM] is manipulated by the hacks – they scribble down Emergency Motions and Amendments so that nobody really knows what they’re voting on; then they move to a vote before you’ve had a chance to suggest you would like to vote separately on one particular section hidden in the middle of the motion. The hacks have it all their own way – they put out slanderous leaflets during elections and if the Elections Committee turn down your protest at misconduct then you can’t even appeal to the Arbitrator unless you’re a candidate. I’ve given up on student politics as a lost cause”.

This mass feeling of anti-politics translated into votes in 1990, when the ‘No Politics’ slate won seven out of 19 exec positions, including President. Perhaps indicative of the slow drift of interest away from Union politics, during the 90s UGMs went from being weekly to an annual occurrence — the AGM. Similarly, the high water mark of 47.1 percent voter turnout in the sabb elections in 1977 has not since been matched. This year’s figure was down on that of 2009, at 22.5 percent.

There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for the waning interest – though this should be the subject of another investigation. For now, we should look at how the Union was used, and enthusiastically so: for every criticism of UGM as a bureaucratic irrelevance, there are stories of mammoth meetings attended by hundreds of students, where occupations, strike-action and boycotts were debated in a hailstorm of rhetoric, and carried out without equivocation.

Without sacrificing analysis for statistics, it is helpful to get a sense of just how many people were involved in activism, particularly against the marketisation of education. In 1970 the _Daily Telegraph_ reported on a week-long ‘work in’ during the Easter holiday, in which students occupied the University social building. Several hundred students returned after the end of term to continue their studies and turn Warwick into ‘Britain’s first truly open university’. Both the local MP and a number of staff agreed to lecture, all as part of a protest against the University’s secret collection of political files on staff and students in what became known as the ‘Warwick Files Affair’ – the subject of E.P. Thompson’s book _Warwick University Ltd._

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In 1979 over 500 students voted for an indefinite occupation as a means to secure guarantees of the status of overseas student fees. In 1987, Warwick sent four coaches to the NUS ‘Living Grant not a Life of Debt’ rally in London – a fact of embarrassment at the time, given Coventry Polytechnic’s eight coaches. In 1988, over 350 Warwick students joined with 15,000 in another London anti-loans demo. In the same year, 90 percent of students boycotted their lectures as part of an NUS day of action against loans. Hardly a major achievement, you might think, although a hugely successful library work-in was scheduled instead, with around 500 students joining in by midnight.

Although it has no modern day equivalent –and perhaps this is the salient point – the 1986-7 Rent Strike is worth mentioning. In 1987, in response to rent increases in 39-week accommodation on campus – despite the University having made significant profits from its non-grant income, outstripping the 0.5 percent budget cut from the Thatcher regime – the Union organised two weeks of direct action, during which over 80 percent of those affected paid into a Union strike fund, accumulating around £112,000. Only 95 continued to pay their rent to the University.

The Union’s demand was for a reduction of rent costs by £57 over the course of the Easter vacation and final term, without the costs being recouped by the loss of accommodation heating. In addition to the strike itself, the Emergency General Meeting held also voted massively in favour of a consumer boycott of the University outlets, including the ‘Airport Lounge’ bar which the University closed at a loss of over £25,000 for the duration of the strike. The University responded by withholding the block grant it normally gives to the Union, and by taking out an injunction through the High Court against all students and all but one of the sabbatical officers during a demonstration and picket line outside the Arts Centre, to prevent them from being able to attend the protest. Police were brought in along with surveillance cameras to monitor the student activists. As Mark Britnell, the Union Treasurer, wrote at the time: “[The University] effectively outlawed [our demonstration]. They simply did not want students to make the public aware of our dispute with the University or Government.

“P.S., Because I have a writ and an injunction I cannot say all that I want for fear of being in contempt of court.”

Eventually an agreement was reached in which the injunction was dropped, and half-rents were secured for the remainder of the year. Although ultimately the Senate’s promises of further cost review transpired to be a clever diffusing tactic (rents continued to increase after 1987), the front line position of the Union sabbs during the struggle is no small point. It’s absolutely how it should be.

Another instance of both mass student activism, and the Union leading by example, was the cringingly titled ‘Car Wars’ of 1989. In the same way as last year the University quietly imposed a hike on parking costs, twenty years previously Senate decided to ban overnight parking for student residents. It resulted in the largest demonstration for two years. 300 students occupied the Senate building and then reconvened to the Arts Centre – after which injunctions were served on eight students and four sabbs. Given the illegality of their leadership, an ad-hoc group called ‘Anonymous Concerned Students’ took over the fight, organising an unofficial EGM attended by over 600 students, which voted for direct action and another consumer boycott. After a whole day of occupying university entrances and the Arts Centre, numbers dwindled to around 80. Fearing the imminent descent of police dogs and yet more injunctions, a few students went to gather support, returning by 7:30pm with another 400 people. Sheer weight of numbers stopped the police offensive, and the protesters leafleted the public. Over 100 students remained by 8am the following morning, their ranks swelling once more to picket throughout the day.

In the end, a package was offered, lifting the injunctions, although maintaining the restrictions on student parking. The Senate promised, however, to expand exemptions to the ban. In a couple of editorials surrounding the issue, the _Boar_ argued, somewhat presciently: “In car parking, we are fighting the battles of the future: the closure of your department, the increase in your rent and decrease in your standard of living. This is what it is about. So support the Union. Whether you like its ways and means or not it is still fighting for you. Call the executive what you like, yet they are on your side. At a time when our Unions are under attack on our front doorsteps we have no alternative. If you don’t fight now, you won’t have the opportunity in the future.”

And, harking back to the Rent Strike in 1987: “In 1989 direct action is our only strength… The Rent Strike…failed because students were too easily fooled. They sacrificed a position of power for a compromise which Senate immediately broke. When a speaker at Friday’s unofficial meeting urged Warwick to link with wider attacks on education he was heckled. But he was right. Senate is at the mercy of the profit motive and it is this that links all student struggles.

“Students are not a commodity. Knowledge is not a product. We must ask ourselves, do Senate have our best interests at heart. If the answer is no, FIGHT.”

To take one final example of previous solidarity in action, the closure of the Spanish Department in 1987 resounds with the ongoing Life Sciences merger. The recurring theme is of a respected department being closed as part of a ‘cost effectiveness review’. The _Boar_ editorial called for united action as a defence against further ‘rationalisation policies’. Whilst the department ultimately closed, it followed a week of continual protest, including petitioning and a sit-in in the Spanish department carried out by over 70 students. For a department of some 30 undergraduates, the level of outside support was significant.

In each of these cases, the rent strike, car parking dispute, and Spanish departmental closure, the Students’ Union took a leading role in the campaign, to the extent that sabbatical officers were legally prevented from representing students by the wielding of injunctions against them. Direct action proved effective, particularly when combined with a broader campaign involving an array of tactics, and solidarity with both local trades’ unions and other students’ unions around the country.

In thinking about the modern-day equivalents of these actions it’s hard to draw any parallels in terms of our resistance. Admittedly the tactics and technology are somewhat different. Facebook allows for rapid communication and mobilisation on a level that simply didn’t exist before – when a weekly student newspaper was the principle source of (occasionally) reliable information. Whilst confusion was quickly harnessed into outrage over the 2009 parking charges, little active resistance was proposed beyond petitioning and a demand for consultation in what was by that stage a _fait accompli_. As in 1989, a few exemptions to the £3 a day parking fees were offered, although for the bulk of students no concessions were made. A lack of coherence in our strategy caused us to concede with less of a shout than a whimper. Whilst the Union hardly took a backseat on the issue, the strategies of past decades seem to have by and large fallen out of favour – the S0.21 sit-in of 2009 being the only notable exception of the last decade – and the small, if vocal, minority that continues to advocate direct action remained generally aloof of the campaign.

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Perhaps the most widely appealing campaigns have always been those relating to the cost of higher education, in which all students have a stake. The Browne review, which is due to report on tuition fees in the Autumn, is expected to recommend a lifting of the cap so that fees could rise to as much as £7,000. This would seem the ideal battle-ground for concerted student activism, though recent indicators of the level of active support are underwhelming: in 2009 the ‘No to Lambert; No to Fees’ protest failed to attract more than 40 students during a visit by the pro-fees Warwick Chancellor, Richard Lambert.

Of course, there has not been a total disengagement from the Union. The Gaza sit-in of 2009 attracted the largest turnout in an EGM for over ten years, with over 84 percent of students voting to back the occupation. Without the result of the EGM it was generally anticipated that the University was going to evict us, as had happened elsewhere. This year’s AGM was well within quorum, and perhaps a new culture of participation is being nurtured. Acquah’s firing earlier this year has the potential to catalyse those who hitherto treated Union democracy with distain or indifference, though, as weeks have turned into months since the vote of no confidence and now Isaac’s reinstatement, we have yet to see the promise of the thousands-strong student lobby realise its campaigning potential.

Is it just that there are no battles left to fight? Certainly not. The Union has devolved a lot of its campaigning responsibilities to societies. These often do an admirable job, but with neither the financial nor human resources of the SU itself, nor the unifying prestige of that organisation, support is often hard to mobilise, the advent of the Facebook age notwithstanding. Our Campus is a microcosm of wider trends in society; we have become atomised, socialised in a culture of individualism that distracts us from the reality of our common position, our common goals, the strength of our collective action. How many of us today would occupy University House in a defence of the Life Sciences faculty? Who among us would say “not good enough” to the farce of a ‘consultation’ that brought about rent hikes above inflation and car-parking cost increases yesterday, and promises with every ounce of certainty to demand higher tuition fees of us tomorrow?

There is no assurance of victory in a strike, boycott, or occupation – still less in a petition and a Union Council motion. But often the act of resistance itself is enough to force the administration’s hand. Bad publicity is like kryptonite to the University PLC. Coordination with other universities, easier now than it has ever been, offers a greater chance of success. So what is to be done? The final feature in this three-part series will take account of our Union’s past and present, and offer some suggestion for how to bring about a future we would all like to see.

### The story so far

#### 1965

In the year of the University’s birth, the SU is created, a constitution is written and a president elected. The Union is run from an office in Rootes Social.

#### 1967

The first full-time Sabbatical Officer President is elected. By the end of the 60s Warwick is already known as Red Warwick.

#### 1970

The Warwick Files Affair: after conducting a sit-in at the registry, students discover evidence that the University had been keeping tabs on the political activity of students and staff. The affair gets national attention.

#### 1974

The Union wins its battle for the right to employ its own staff with the appointment of the first Permanent Secretary.

#### 1974

Warwick student Kevin Gately is killed after clashes with police at an anti-National Front demonstration, causing shock and anger amongst students.

#### 1975

SU gets its own building. Students protest against drastic rent rises at university accommodation, necessitating police action to remove them from Senate House.

#### 1982

The Chip Protest: students protest after the University prevents the Union from opening its own chip shop. The University finally relented.

#### 1983

After pelting Tory Education Secretary with eggs, students incur a £30,000 fine from the University, resulting in a boycott of University outlets.

#### 1993

The Union begins to bring in more outside commercial interests to support its income, and new brands are created.

#### 1998

Union North (now SUHQ) opens. The Union harks back to more radical days by naming its restaurant after East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao.

#### 2001

Drastic changes are necessary as the Union faces financial difficulties. It is three years before it is properly back on its feet.

#### 2005

The Union begins negotiations for a rebuild of Union South – now the Atrium and Copper Rooms.

#### 2009

[Students occupy a Social Studies room](/news/s021-sit-in/) imploring the University to support education in Gaza. An Emergency General Meeting draws a record attendance.

#### 2010

Student discontent continues to be alive and well with [parking fees](/news/parking/), [tuition fees](/news/tuition-fees/) and [Union finances](/news/union+finance/) at the top of the agenda.


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