Image: Martin Day / The Boar

No end in sight for Warwick encampment: Examining student opinion amid Council–student standoff

The demonstration by the student-staff group Warwick Stands With Palestine has gone on for weeks, since tents were first erected in the Piazza on 26 April. Marking the first of what would become a national wave of student encampments across UK universities, demonstrators have called on the University of Warwick’s management to ‘divest’ from companies they say are enabling the war in Gaza.

Yet, though other universities have backed down in the face of student outrage, Warwick’s management has stood firm. A meeting of the University’s governing Council on 22 May rejected the encampment’s principle charge: that through their partnerships and investments in the defence sector, Warwick is ‘complicit’ in Israel’s military campaign, in which, as of 15 June, over 37,000 people had died. The Council refused the demands for all ties to arms companies to be broken and has since toughened its stance, with security on campus being bolstered and University House closed off from students.

With neither side backing down, there seems to be no end in sight for the encampment. To examine what implications such a standoff has had on the University’s student community, The Boar has conducted a survey into opinions on the demonstration and the wider dispute with University Management.

The survey’s findings immediately corroborate a key claim by the encampment, that their actions represent the beliefs of a majority of the student community. Respondents overwhelmingly backed the demonstration: 69% ‘strongly’ supported it, with a further 11% professing to ‘somewhat support’ the encampment.

Many responses described feeling proud of the protestors, while several referenced a “right side of history” they felt the encampment to be on – one History student compared the encampment to the Vietnam War protest movement of the 1970s.

Students are turning a moment of widespread trauma […] into a beautiful space of collective action

Warwick student

One respondent praised what they called the “positive and welcoming space” created by the encampment. “Students,” they said, “are turning a moment of widespread trauma at the horrors of a genocide being carried out against Gaza into a beautiful space of collective action, not just trying to hold Warwick to account for its complicity, but also creating spaces for knowledge production and community building.”

The protest playing an educational role for students was a widespread theme. The survey found over half of those surveyed (54%) had learnt of the reasons behind the encampment through events held by the demonstration itself. Four out of every five respondents had picked up information through social media: the Warwick Stands With Palestine account on Instagram has been popularly engaged with by students, with posts frequently receiving over a thousand likes.

Not a single respondent was unaware of why the encampment was taking place: 80% considered themselves ‘very aware’ and 20% ‘somewhat’ so. Of this last fifth, over half (58%) said the demonstration had made them more likely to seek out information on the reasons behind it. As a Chemistry student said: “If these people are willing to camp for weeks for what they believe in, I should at least do a bit of research to inform my opinion.”

As could perhaps be expected of a university’s student population, the survey found an extremely high level of awareness of the wider context for the controversy: two-thirds (66%), believed they were ‘very informed’ on events in Israel and Palestine, with only a tiny minority (2%) professing not to have followed what was going on. Even while accounting for survey engagement skewing towards those actively seeking out information, it indicates a significant level of passion and concern for the crisis among the University’s population. One comment summarised the beliefs of many protestors: “This isn’t some faraway thing. This is our university, and we can do something about it.”

Commenting on the support shown by the survey, a spokesperson for Warwick Stands With Palestine told The Boar that: “These figures reflect the overwhelming support and encouragement we’ve received from students across the University.” They also referred to the All Student Vote held by Warwick Students’ Union in November of last year, which saw a motion calling for the University to divest from arms companies win almost three-quarters of the vote in support. This was cited as further evidence for the breadth of student support for the movement, alongside over 50 societies having signed the WSWP constitution.

This support is not totally universal, of course. Whilst a decisive majority of students backed the encampment, just under a fifth professed to oppose it. This divide in support amongst those surveyed seemed to fall along partisan lines – 88% of those who identified with left-wing ideologies supported the protestors, whereas 92% of those on the right were opposed. More broadly, where just 6% of left-wing respondents said they opposed the use of disruptive protest tactics, 85% of right-wingers said as much. None of those surveyed on the right of the political spectrum offered their unconditional support to disruptive protest tactics, compared to 70% of those on the left.

Of the comments by those opposed, many suggested that aspects of the protest were antisemitic – one singled out the alleged use of the word ‘intifada’ in protest slogans, understood as referring to the period of terror attacks on Israel, as “very much cross[ing] the line”. A History and Politics student highlighted one common refrain used by the demonstrators – “When people say, ‘From the river to the sea’, that is a genocidal chant” – in a point that has been echoed by some Jewish advocacy groups. They went on to declare that: “I will never support this protest, and look forward to the day when it’s taken down.”

It feels as if the University isn’t a safe space for open debate

Warwick politics student

As stated earlier, opinions like these were by no means the majority, representing less than a fifth of the student survey. One common concern of these opponents was, however, shared by a plurality of those sampled – the worry that student politics had ‘become too toxic’. 48% of respondents agreed with the stance; 45% disagreed. One of those polled mused that “it feels as if the University isn’t a safe space for open debate, and nuance is at a premium,” going on to speculate that, “perhaps this is as those with the strongest opinion on each side are most likely to engage.”

Another said they felt there was “a bit of a toxic culture surrounding activism on campuses – everyone wants you to speak up, but no one wants to educate you because it’s not their job.”

Others, however, have pushed back hard against this notion that the debate has become too unpleasant. An Economics student argued that while they understood the weariness with the conflict: “To act as if the cancellation of events like [the Eurovision screening] will ever compare to the horrors in Gaza is insulting.” A WSWP spokesperson dismissed concerns over a toxic atmosphere, asserting that: “Our focus is on the atmosphere in Gaza – the humanitarian catastrophe created by Israel’s genocidal war, and the dispossession and brutalisation Palestinians have faced over 76 years of Israeli settler-colonialism.”

A final question for those surveyed found that 69% felt the University does not care about the beliefs of its students. As the standoff goes on, there is every chance this perception could grow: a vote by the University Assembly on 24 May “overwhelmingly” backing protest demands contrasted starkly with the decision of the University Council two days prior, exacerbating perceptions of a disconnect between management and the wider community. WSWP’s own stance was made clear to The Boar: “As long as the University ignores its students on this issue, [and] refuses to seriously negotiate with us and act on our demands, students have no reason to believe the University cares about our views.”

Comments (1)

  • Denise Sadique

    Shocking & disappointing. Universities are no longer focussed on education but instead indoctrination!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.