Prof. John Holmwood of Nottingham University addressing students outside Senate House / Photo by Michael Allen

Professors lend support to Senate House occupation

The University has refused to engage with the students occupying Senate House to protest the “marketisation and privatisation” of higher education despite several professors voicing their support for the occupation on Tuesday.

Gurminder K Bhambra, Professor of Sociology at Warwick, John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology at Nottingham University, and Michael Niblett, Research Fellow in the Yesu Perusad Centre for Caribbean Studies at Warwick gave talks outside Senate House to over one hundred students in support of the objectives of ‘Protect the Public University – Warwick’ (PPU), the group of around twenty students occupying the Senate House Council Chamber.

The ‘open teach-in’ was introduced by Steven Barrell, a Phd Philosophy student, who called Nigel Thrift’s £42,000 pay rise ‘grotesque’.

“We are seeing generally a breaking down of the basis of university,” he said. “This protest isn’t simply about fees.”

Speaking from one of the front windows of Senate House, final-year Politics student Joseph Fox, speaking in a personal capacity, said: “Within the last hour Warwick Students’ Union has proven that it is not worthy of that name. Their decision to refuse to support our campaign to defend public higher education proves that it is nothing but a passive and politically inept consumer rights bureau.

“This government is intent on creating, indeed, its neoliberal assault on higher education depends upon an acquiescent, unquestioning student body.”

The first speech, by Gurminder K Bhambra, drew upon the ideas of late Warwick professor E.P. Thompson who left the university in 1971 in protest against its perceived commercialisation.

Prof. Bhambra noted that graduates paying £9,000 fees will pay 49 per cent tax on any earnings over £41,000 when student loan repayments are taken into consideration, whereas society’s highest earners currently pay only 45 per cent on all earnings over £150,000.

The second speaker, Prof. Holmwood, criticsed the “democratic values” of higher education, noting that Nottingham University has never set up an international campus in a democracy. He accused the government of “attacking the very idea of a public itself”.

The third speaker Dr Niblett stressed the importance of occupations and protests as ‘pedagogical exercises’, saying that although a single occupation may not be completely successful it was important to “keep pushing for incremental changes”.

He also criticsed neoliberalism as being “predicated on taking and not making” and said companies like Serco “suck resources out of the university.”

One of PPU’s ‘objectives’ is that “university managers formerly employed by outsourcing giants, such as Serco, should have no involvement in decisions where there is potential for bias.”

He urged the security guarding the occupation to particpate in the protest.

“They should be out on this side of the line rather than in [Senate House],” he said.

People from outside Warwick attended the talk, including around ten students and sabbatical officers from Birmingham University.

Several professors from the English Department were also present. One professor, who wished to remain anonymous, said he came to express his solidarity with the movement but was shocked that more of his colleagues did not turn up.

“In the end [privatisation] affects the quality of education,” he said.

He said he declined to take an active part in the protest out of fear of losing his work visa for the UK.

Laura Kurlansky, a second-year English and Theatre Studies student who attended the talks, was pleased with the event.

“I think it’s the first real open support we’ve had for the staff,” she said. “It’s just so much an issue for them as it is for us.”

But not all students present were in complete agreement with the objectives of the movement.

Dariush Sokolov, a Phd Philosophy student, said during a question and answer session: “It’s a shame we only limit our demands to protecting the public university. The idea of the public university is still quite an elitist institution. We can also go a lot further than defending an old elite model.”

Supporters wore squares of yellow cloth to show their solidarity with the occupation. They also signed an ‘Open Letter of Solidarity’ which had gained around 175 signatures by the end of the talk.

A statement released by Warwick Students’ Union (SU) on Tuesday said that it “fully support[s] the right of our students to protest peacefully and within the law.” However, due to being bound by “legal constraints” it cannot “formally support any form of unlawful direct action.”

First-year PPE student and councillor at the SU Miguel Costa Matos was unsatisfied with the SU statement.

“The…statement suggests that PPU are a violent and unlawful movement,” he said. “No violence was used against the University or its property. The chamber is normally open for all to enter. We are simply giving it a new function: to be a space for dialogue on this important and urgent issue.

“The University is locking the occupiers in because they have contributed to the widening of inequalities on campus we’re denouncing. Whatever legal action taken on the occupiers and/or their associates, there is such a principle as presuming innocence until proven guilty. The SU therefore has no excuse on not following the mandate students gave them to support ‘non-violent direct action’ such as the PPU Occupation. The Sabb team have actively broken Union policy and disrespected the students’ democratic decisions.”

In a letter sent yesterday to PPU by Academic Registrar Michael Glover and seen by the Boar, the University said it refused to engage with the students and claimed the occupation was having a “number of negative impacts on the operation of the University including the cost of additional resource required to provide an adequate security presence for your welfare, the need to reschedule and relocate meetings, reputational damage and the need to ensure the safety and welfare of staff and students affected by your activity.”

Mr Glover demands that the group set an end date for their occupation and calls the indefinite extension of the occupation “totally unacceptable”.

The University closed the Postgraduate Hub today and partially closed Senate House as a result of the occupation.

An increased security presence was observable in and around Senate House this evening, with extra security having been contracted from outside the University.

The official University Open Days, which are fully booked, will take place tomorrow and Saturday. The University has said that any disruption to this event “would…be likely to require the Institution to consider taking further action.”

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