By Elliot Folan
Earlier this month, the University of East Anglia dropped a disciplinary case against two students for taking part in an anti-tax avoidance protest. I was one of those students, and although the case was dropped it was a perfect example of the creeping criminalisation of protest that’s taking place on university campuses and throughout the country.
There are still some unanswered questions about the case: why did the university wait three months to pursue us for a peaceful protest? Why did the university push the case in the first place when the Disciplinary Officer dropped it almost instantly after talking to me in person? And why did the evidence document rely entirely on the word of an employee of the multinational company being protested against?
I’ll start by going through what happened, and then talk about the wider implications of the case for students at UEA and on other campuses.
In October last year, me and my friends learnt that Grant Thornton was coming to UEA to recruit students. For those of you who don’t know, Grant Thornton are an accountancy firm who openly admit to assisting companies with tax avoidance schemes; for example, they’ve been accused in the past of creating schemes to dodge payment of Gordon Brown’s 50p tax rate. They pride themselves on “tax efficiency”. Meanwhile, a whole new bastion of first years, including myself, are paying £9,000 in tuition fees while Grant Thornton gloats about minimising tax rates. Unsurprisingly, I and many others have a problem with inviting such a company onto our campus.
However, there they were. So the plan was this: we were going to let students know what Grant Thornton do, how the company’s actions affect our lives and let them make an informed decision. They were originally just going to have a drop-in session at the careers centre, so we were going to leaflet students going in. Then, at the last minute, the careers centre sent the Grant Thornton employees to Union House – where the student union is housed – to recruit students instead. This is despite the fact that the union has a firm policy against fees and cuts.
So me and my friends gathered two metres away from the Grant Thornton stall, and I spoke through a megaphone to the students nearby about what Grant Thornton do. We handed out some leaflets and made another speech, and then got ready to leave. But then, as I turned around, Grant Thornton were packing up and leaving instead, before they were due to.
I and my friends left, and I thought little of the protest for the next three months. I got on with my degree. Little did I know that, all the while, there was something going on behind the scenes.
On the very day of the protest, it seems that the careers centre – who had invited Grant Thornton – lodged a complaint with the Disciplinary Officer about the protest. An investigation took place; they looked me up on the internet to gather evidence, including my Twitter and Facebook accounts. They found it in one tweet where I’d openly admitted I would be joining a protest later that day. They had also asked union officers to hand over my name, and those of other protesters. They did not.
Then the university did nothing. For three months.
Then, at the start of January, me and another student got a vague letter from the Disciplinary Officer telling us that we had been referred to the Senate Student Discipline Committee, who can impose fines or exclusions. He gave a list of regulations breached, told me that I’d been accused of “aggressive and intimidating behaviour” and gave me no further information.
This might not be a problem for most people, although it would be a massive injustice. But I have a mild form of asperger’s syndrome, which puts me on the autistic spectrum. And I think I would be right in saying that no autistic person reacts well to uncertainty, especially when it’s around whether you might be excluded from university for protesting. The result of all this uncertainty was that I got incredibly stressed and anxious.
Fortunately I was able to talk to several people, in the union and elsewhere, who pressured the university for me. Over two weeks we managed to squeeze information out of them. I was sent the ‘evidence’ document (based on the word of a single Grant Thornton employee) – which had been compiled three months ago – but was at no point given a possible date of a panel hearing. We informed the various officials involved that I have Asperger’s syndrome – in fact we did it twice – but it was not mentioned by any of them. If they did take it into account, they didn’t understand it because they never gave me precise information, dates or details of the process – all things I needed to know if I was to calm down. I only got that information from the people who helped me out.
Anyway, this process of asking for information, being told we couldn’t be given any, asking again and getting it anyway carried on for a week and a half, until the Senate Student Discipline Committee decided it wouldn’t be hearing the case and referred it back to the Disciplinary Officer. I then had to wait another week to meet him. In all these periods of waiting I went through various stages of anxiety, which the university management did nothing to alleviate.
And I was subjected to this process – this stressful, anxiety-inducing process – for no other reason than I had exercised my democratic right to protest something I believe is unjust and immoral. It was utterly disgusting.
I think anyone reading this knows exactly why I was subjected to this process: they want to make me, and people like me, scared of protesting. It’s the same reason the Metropolitan Police kettled hundreds of innocent teenagers, in the cold and the dark, during the November 2010 student protests. And not only did the killjoys in university management try to suppress my human right to peaceful protest, but they also ignored my needs as a disabled person.
But I should say that it has not made me afraid of campaigning against injustice. I’m as determined to change the world as I was last year.
Why? The reason is simple. The university and the careers office openly admit that they pursued this case because they were worried about damaging the relationship between Grant Thornton and UEA.
They weren’t worried about the welfare of students, or about first year students paying £9,000 fees and watching Grant Thornton take pride in their tax dodging work.
They were worried about the profits of multinational companies, and the relationship between a rich firm and the university.
And that’s wrong.
The wider context
This case may be over, but it is set in a wider context of suppression of protest on university campuses.
Birmingham and Sheffield’s attempt to ban student occupations and protests – though overturned in Sheffield’s case – are other examples of it, and it looks like UEA wants to get in on the act. We’re not going to let them. Protesting is a democratic right, and just as importantly it is something that students and young people are supposed to do. You can’t just ban protests, or discipline protesters, because you don’t like the image they present of your university to rich multinational companies. Universities should support students in taking on injustice; they shouldn’t side with those perpetrating injustice.
So I would conclude by saying that none of us should ever be frightened away from protesting. Universities never have a leg to stand on and they are just trying to frighten people when they do things like this.
We have a world that is unequal, where billions of people go hungry every day. We have a planet that is dying because political leaders care more about the profits of big companies than about the future of us and our children. And we have a country where the government has to be told by the courts that it cannot force people to work for no pay – and where the government twists itself into knots to justify working for no wages. These things are not separate issues. They are all unjust and immoral, and they all need to be fought.
With a world like the one we live in, protest is not something that needs to be morally justified, or defended in front of disciplinary panels. It is our woeful inability as a society to deal with these great challenges that needs to justify itself, and it is our political leaders – from all the main parties – who need to justify their actions and their inaction. Not students.
Elliot Folan is a History and Politics student at the University of East Anglia. He is also the Green Party candidate for the university’s County Council seat in May’s elections.