A large group of student protesters at the University of Warwick have formed a roadblock in a day of protests against the rising cost of higher education in parts of the UK.
The team behind the rally - Warwick for Free Education (WFFE) - took to social media to announce demonstrators had marched through the campus and blockaded its main road for half an hour in protest against maintenance grant cuts.
Chanting “no cuts, no fees, no corporate universities” in a video which has emerged on Facebook, WFFE said: “On Friday, students held a rally to protest against the Government’s cuts to maintenance grants and called on Warwick to condemn this move both publicly and through their position in the Russell Group.
“The protest was called by a group of activists committed to fighting for a free, liberated, and democratic education.
“Following this rally, approximately 70 Warwick students blocked University Road for half an hour, covering the ‘shared space’ by the piazza, aiming to disrupt the university and force the management to cede to their demands.”
Hours before the protest got underway, WFFE recalled how, in December 2014, Warwick students took part in an occupation which lasted eight days and called for the university to “publicly voice their support for free education as a right” as well as for “an end to corporate control over our education and increased democracy.”
However, rather than negotiate with students, WFFE said: “The university elected to impose a draconian, indefinite, and campus-wide injunction, banning all occupation-style protest on campus.
“Today, we will be assembling once more, to oppose the Government’s disgraceful scrapping of maintenance grants for the poorest students, and to call on the university to lift this injunction.”
WFFE said it would be demanding an education system which “seeks to challenge social hierarchies” and “encourages subversive thought.” The group said: “We demand an education controlled by students and workers, rather than managers concerned only with the revenues and prestige of the university.
“We demand an education which benefits our communities and the public good, rather than the interests of bosses. We demand an education free to all.”
As well as calling on the university to denounce cuts to higher education, the WFFE rally called for the university to undertake minimum compliance with the Government’s Prevent agenda, endorse the University College Union’s (UCU) position of opposition to the Prevent duty, and implement “full transparency with respect to all interactions with Prevent.”
The group’s two other demands included: “That university management lift the £12,000 High Court injunction - which is an authoritarian impingement upon the right to protest - and for management to lobby and advocate for universities to remain under Freedom of Information Act.”
Member of WFFE, Ollie Sanderson-Nichols, said: “Warwick has been using authoritarian instruments like High Court injunctions to silence dissent, and is complicit in attacks on poorer students like maintenance grants cuts. If Warwick insists on taking our grants, we will take their roads.”
Maintenance grants, which are used by around half a million of the poorest students from across England, were “frighteningly and undemocratically” axed “in a committee most people have never heard of” last month in a debate which lasted only 90 minutes and attended by just 18 MPs.
Demonstrators later gathered in Parliament Square in support of an opposition day debate in the Commons which was launched by the Labour Party following significant cross-party opposition to the proposals and lobbying from students’ unions from across the UK. The crowd, on that day, blocked Westminster Bridge after the motion was voted down.
Warwick students have been protesting vehemently this month. On 4 February, WFFE said activists disrupted the university’s finance office with a ‘noise demo’ and a sit-in, forcing the new vice-chancellor, Stuart Croft, to meet with them and discuss their demands.
WFFE described the concessions made in that meeting as being “small but significant victories for our direct action, as well as a foundation upon which we can build for further change.” However, the group said none of its demands were met outright and pledged to continue to protest, with the possibility of escalation if management was felt to be “reneging on any of their promises.”
Another of the group’s members, Jamie Sims, described how the Government’s Prevent agenda, decreasing transparency through moves to make universities exempt from the FoI Act, and the higher education green paper are all “symptomatic of a creeping marketisation and Americanisation of British universities.”
He said: “We resist this and call for a free, liberated, and democratic education and university.”
In an email to the Independent on the day’s events, a University of Warwick spokesperson said: “A group of protesters stood on the main road through the campus for a short time. The main impact was to delay vehicles travelling through campus and, in particular, some buses used by students and staff.”
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