At 4.30pm on Friday 14th June, students from Protect the Public University at the University of Warwick went into occupation of the university’s Council Chamber. This is the latest action in a year that has seen a remarkable resurgence in student activism, unseen since the tuition fee rises in 2010.
The Council Chamber, the University’s most important meeting room, sits in Senate House, an administrative building on the campus. A spokesperson for the campaign explained that the decision to act now had been planned extensively, targeting the ‘Warwick book festival and two major open days’, all taking place in the next seven days, in an attempt to draw attention to their campaign.
Unlike much other student resistance over the past few months, the students are focused solely on wider issues facing education. One student explained that the occupation was called in the hope that ‘we will provide impetus for the formation of an effective national student resistance to inequality within our universities.’ In the occupiers first statement, they highlight their ‘dismay’ at the vice chancellor of Warwick, Nigel Thrift, taking a pay increase of £42,000, putting his annual salary at £316,000. At a time of austerity and cuts to education funding, the students are suggesting this pay rise is revoked, and that the funds instead be used to provide ‘an annual bursary for students from the local area’.
This is not the first time vice chancellors’ six-figure salaries have been questioned by students. At the universities of London and Birmingham to name but a few, students have been publicly questioning the salaries of their institution's managers, while pay cuts and privatisation plans are being implemented on campuses around the countries.
Warwick’s protestors list other objectives, including asking the management to refuse to outsource services, providing greater student and staff representation in the decision making processes, and asking the vice chancellor to commit to ‘the protection and promotion of the public university.’
The occupation begins in the same week that it has been revealed the Government is considering raising interest rates on old student loans, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that young people in their twenties have been hardest hit in the recession seeing their median income fall by 12 per cent in the last five years.
Gurminder Bhambra, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Theory Centre at Warwick University, has advocated in the wake of these revelations, that it is ‘the time to ask about the purposes of the university’ and to ‘engage in a dialogue not just about the university but also wider inequalities’. When asked about the student occupation, Professor Bhambra suggested that ‘it could be argued that the students in occupation are engaging with this agenda in its most profound sense’.
The Boar, the University’s student paper, reported that ‘a security van attended the scene within minutes of the occupation, giving the students an agreement that they would not block off their toilet facilities and food supplies,’ However, as I was speaking to students in occupation on Friday night, security staff were already requesting the protestors show university ID, a sign that already the university is being forced to act in some form. So far, a spokesperson for the university has made clear that they feel ‘such events are quite common at universities and we will keep this one under observation.” Yesterday, Michael Glover, the academic registrar, entered the occupation and reiterated that the university will refuse to engage with the protestors as long as they are in occupation.
What happens over the coming days will be worth watching. Recent protests against privatisation at Sussex University saw an occupation lasting two months, a national demonstration attracting thousands, and the formation of a ‘pop-up union’, to fight privatisation plans.
Support for the occupation at Warwick had been flooding in, with students and academics across the country expressing their support, including the likes of Owen Jones getting behind the campaign. Teach-ins and rallies are already taking place, and a letter has been sent by the campaign to the university management.
Across the country students, academics and concerned onlookers will be watching Warwick closely. Could the next 12 months see a resurrection in student activism across the nation? Based on the last few months, it seems this may well be on the cards.