In light of the arrests of students at the University of Birmingham, Jenny Sterne argues that universities should be fostering protest, not criminalising it
Defend Education are ‘fighting for free and democratic education against privatization and cuts’; what should be a universal call from students across the country, in the wake of the £9000 fee hike and now the sell off of the student loan book to private companies. However, the events of January 29th reveal the shocking lack of support such protests are gaining from the student population and their respective universities. Of the protesters that day, 13 were detained for not handing over personal details, an illegal practice, and then released on bail awaiting further inquiries. The arrested students have now been suspended from university without a right to appeal, simply for being arrested as part of a protest. These events are becoming the norm as the University of Sussex protests demonstrated, when students were arrested for simply sitting down on a road in their campus. It appears it is no longer possible to protest without fear of severe retribution. Dissent, which should be a natural part of university life as we learn to question all that we know, is becoming something the increasingly economically focused higher education establishment wishes to stamp out altogether.
“The Guild is extremely disappointed with the action at today’s demonstration” were the words of The University of Birmingham’s own students’ union after the events on the 29th January. The reason given by the Union in a statement was that they “will only support lawful direct action and peaceful protest”. As Adam Rowe, News Editor for Redbrick News in Birmingham, confirmed, the protests in Birmingham became confrontational when university security staff blocked the entrance to the University’s main hall. Property was damaged on campus and some graffiti was found during the protest. Is this reason enough to condemn and withdraw all support from a campaign demanding the conservation of freedom of education?
The Vice Chancellor of Birmingham University David Eastwood is able to continue on a £400,000+ salary, whilst advocating cuts throughout the University and leaving many of the institution’s staff on less than the living wage. This pay gap, just one example of the increasingly corporate way in which universities are run, is an injustice that surely everyone must want to fight against. However, the apathy of many students to the causes of Defend Education is stark. They struggle to accept the methods used by Defend Education against the University, suggesting activists and University management engage in debates and discussions, rather than just antagonising each other. In response to this, one Defend Education campaigner wrote in Birmingham’s student newspaper “we are fighting for a democratic university”. If the University was democratic, the demands of the student population would be enacted – “it is the totalitarian power of management that forces a confrontation on anyone who wants to change how the University is run.” If the means to discuss democratically with real results are not available then protests become the only option.
Protests that have historically made real achievements have often used confrontational means in order for recognition of their demands to occur. One key example would be the suffragettes who had no democratic way to voice their demands so therefore confrontational action was necessary. Confrontation is then only exaggerated through the widely used techniques of kettling. In such a situation, containment is used to scare people within protests, but public protesting is and must remain a crucial part of our democracy.
The intention of Boris Johnson to give the go ahead for water cannons to become a means of controlling protesters is just another example of the states draconian methods in attempting to stem the rights of the public to protest without fear. These kinds of threats mean that violence can easily erupt in volatile protests; the protesters know the kind of techniques the police are prone to using and therefore fear sparks violent energy. I am not denying that protesters can be seriously at fault and irrational in cases, but the stupidity of the few should not silence the majority from being able to protest without being demonized as hooligans or criminals.
Universities are in their essence places of academic freedom, environments in which for generations students have been able to research and question the world around them through their studies. Dissent is a consequential and natural part of higher education, University studies encourage conflicting views on a range of subjects as a means of creating what will be; university studies controlled by “things as they are” decreases this autonomous power and destroy our ability to protest.