'The students are revolting - and have mobiles'

Occupying buildings may have mattered 30 years ago but today's students must mobilise opinion differently
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The Independent Online

Anyone with an interest in the theatre of the absurd should have been where I was the other day. Just as members of senate met to begin the business of the day - the election of members of a steering group to appoint a new Vice-chancellor - the dishevelled figure of the senior tutor appeared, a hoary old joke on his lips. "The students are revolting!" he cried. "We've been occupied. There are 300 in the building," - pause for effect - "and they've all got mobile phones."

Anyone with an interest in the theatre of the absurd should have been where I was the other day. Just as members of senate met to begin the business of the day - the election of members of a steering group to appoint a new Vice-chancellor - the dishevelled figure of the senior tutor appeared, a hoary old joke on his lips. "The students are revolting!" he cried. "We've been occupied. There are 300 in the building," - pause for effect - "and they've all got mobile phones."

And so they had. Three hundred students had marched out of a union meeting and occupied the administration building, aptly named Senate House. A rush of adrenaline swirled around the chamber, and spectral memories of other times began to take shape in the ether. Middle-aged members of senate were abruptly jolted back to the days when they had been part of an occupying student band themselves, and though they now sat on the opposite side of the table, the memories were strong enough to disturb.

The cause for student concern was the proliferation of rumours in the media about fee increases in top universities. Alarmed by the increased cost of studying and by fears of greater divisiveness in higher education, they were seeking assurances from their own institution that we would not go down such a path, despite our place at the top of the league tables. But while once upon a time the people sitting in senate would have been carrying placards themselves, 25 years on the world is a different place and none of us can afford to ignore the hard economic facts created by both Conservative and Labour cuts in higher education.

Governments may talk about making education a priority, but the brutal truth is that they don't follow up the talk with money. Quite the reverse: they cut and cut again, steadily reducing the money available to universities while at the same time demanding that student numbers are increased. No wonder today's students are angry.

The student president, grim-lipped, explained that students were occupying the building until senate gave assurances that there would be no fee increases. The old '68-ers shuffled their papers anxiously. Here was a real dilemma. Sympathy for the students was running high, even without the nostalgia factor. Then middle age prevailed. "We can't make any such assurances," declared one of them. "It would be both unconstitutional and undemocratic. Anyway," he added triumphantly, "we can't do anything because we aren't technically a proper meeting of senate since the Vice-chancellor isn't in the chair."

He wasn't, of course, because we had been about to discuss matters that concerned him directly and he had properly stepped down. But it was notable that in spite of the obvious presence of several hundred students outside his door, he had not emerged from his office either. The student president, mobile phone in hand, opened a window and climbed out on to the roof, followed by cries of "Don't do it." "It's not that bad." and such like. When he climbed in again, he informed us that he had received a "cast iron guarantee that no members of senate would be harassed or cajoled in any way".

"Shame," muttered one of the '68-ers next to me, "I was looking forward to a bit of aggro." The noises grew louder, confusion in the chamber increased. "I propose that we sit in absolute silence," suggested someone who had obviously missed 1968 altogether, "until the students leave this building."

"Why can't we talk about the fees issues?" suggested the president, endeavouring to inject a little reasonableness, but the '68-ers were having none of that. "It would be wholly undemocratic to discuss an unagendaed item," said one, to cries of Hear! Hear!

"What's stopping the VC coming back in and taking the chair?" asked someone who was obviously trying to push the action along a bit.

"He would have to step over student bodies to get here," said the Registrar, and I felt more than a twinge of sympathy for the VC who, as a few of us knew, had had a particularly painful visit to the dentist just before lunch.The '68-er next to me who had been a student at Warwick in the heady days of student protests in the early Seventies declared loudly to anyone who would listen that while he agreed that we couldn't discuss the matter, nevertheless he liked the fact that the students felt passionately about fees. "I like people to feel passionate about something," he shouted, "even car-parking."

At this point the president climbed back out of the window and several members of the administration went off to try and rescue the Vice-chancellor, who was obviously having a rest and hoping that nobody would see fit to save him from it. When order was finally restored, senate proceeded with its business and face was saved all round.

The protest melted away in the afternoon, apparently when it became clear the television news crews were not turning up. But the incident left me feeling troubled. On the one hand, I deplore the idea of fee increases for students, which I believe is fundamentally wrong and cannot but damage the prospects of many young people. On the other hand, I don't see how standards can be maintained in higher education without more money, and the mobile phone generation understands that message clearly.

Above all, I was disturbed by what the occupation showed me about the gap between universities 30 years ago and universities today. It isn't just that we have grown old and forgotten that there are still causes to feel passionate about. It's rather that we can't talk about education today without also talking about finance. We are market driven in ways that none of us ever imagined in our wildest protests against capitalist tyranny back in the anti-Vietnam war days.

Occupying buildings may have been a significant gesture 30 years ago, but today's students need to mobilise in different ways to make their voices heard. For it isn't only university senates who are full of grey-haired '68-ers - they make up most of the Government too.

The writer is Pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick University

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