A worrying trend is taking hold; what started as a trickle is becoming a torrent. A disproportionate attack on student protestors is unsettling not just the student movement, but a wider community accustomed to deeply enshrined political freedoms. This attack has emerged in response to a highly organised, highly politicized movement that is operating well outside the bounds of not merely the establishment, but also well outside the bounds of the “established anti-establishment”. Traditional student organs like the National Union of Students repeatedly find themselves on the sidelines as the student movement battles the government. To the government and universities our movement presents an unquantifiable unknown mass that disquiets them.
My 2nd expulsion as elected Vice President Education from all university committees and the initiation of new disciplinary proceedings against me, my 4th during my time at university, for participation in a “protest against the protest ban”, is an example of a juncture. It represents the juncture of the creation of a new, oppressive, corporate university meeting the remains of old democratic systems of university governance. It is the latest in a line of disproportionate measures brought in by certain universities. Measures including injunctions against protests, bans from campus, suspensions of students, several on-going disciplinaries, as well the use bailiffs and riot police on campuses against peaceful protests.
At a recent “question time” event, the University of Birmingham Vice Chancellor David Eastwood, in response to a question about his crackdown on protests, responded by justifying his actions “as part of a growing trend”. He claimed, to the groans of the horrified audience, that the university was “helping several other universities to try out the “Birmingham method” for dealing with protests.
Universities are attempting to selectively and disproportionally target individuals, seemingly irrationally, but probably deliberately, beyond any expected norm, most likely to deter a wider movement. We have all seen direct state repression from; undercover cops, outright police brutality, to the new “total policing” tactics, mass arrests, farcical trials, raids, illegal stop and searches and the brutalising “kettles” that we have been in. These are blunt tools which we all understand, but what people don’t understand is that bastions of liberal democracy, like universities are being incorporated into this system.
In the last two years alone, since the 2010 upsurge in student activism, the University of Birmingham, where I study, has brought around 63 separate disciplinary charges against its students for political activism. I was even banned from campus last term. These disciplinary charges are politically motivated and have no grounding in actual offences. None of the 63 charges have ever led to a student being found “guilty” by university disciplinary panels. Despite the “not guilty” verdicts of the panels, being put through this process is extremely stressful for the students involved. Last year 15 students found themselves being put through a disciplinary process in the final weeks before many of their dissertation deadlines, for taking part in a peaceful sit in. None were found guilty but the threat of expulsion served its purpose.
The mafia attitudes of the corporate university spreads further into people’s study and workplace. Friends I know hoping to carry on with postgraduate studies have been advised by sympathetic lecturers to not associate too closely with political campaigning lest they get turned down for postgraduate study.
It is clear our society is at some sort of juncture; we tread a line between the old social democratic welfare state and the new corporate dominated “free” market capitalist society. Universities are feeling this change as well. For both academics and students the increasing pressure from universities’ management is so oppressive because it is part of their everyday work, life & study. Corporate values of obedience and servility are clashing head on with the liberal values of most universities. Our reaction to this approaching juncture will define the future of the university.