Shortly after midnight yesterday (23rd November), around 40 students occupied a building at the University of Birmingham, in protest over the Higher Education white paper, and in support of the 30th November strikes next week.
This was part of a national day of action that also saw occupations begin at Warwick University, Royal Holloway, York, Edinburgh and Goldsmiths. Students and Education workers opened up a social centre in Bloomsbury, near the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS).
Students at Cambridge University disrupted a meeting at which David Willetts, the Higher Education minister, was due to speak. He did not deliver his speech. The students then occupied a lecture theatre at the University.
At Birmingham, students occupied the former gatehouse at the North gate, which is not in use, and they are claiming squatters rights. The University has responded by placing a heavy security presence on the building and preventing anyone from entering. Following negotiations between the Guild of Students and the University, the occupiers have been able to receive food, but only if it is delivered by an officer of the Guild.
Under squatters rights, the building (if entered freely (ie: without breaking and entering) and secured) is considered their home, and the blockade of the building by the University is potentially illegal, and a similar situation to if your landlord decided to place security outside your house and stop your friends from visiting you.
Despite this, the situation has largely remained calm, aside from an incident last night where it is alleged that security tried to drag someone out of a window and punched one of the other occupiers.
The University have said that they will get an injunction if the occupiers have not left by 9am this morning. At the time of writing, they are still in the building and are not intending to leave. No legal documents have been received by the occupation as of yet.
The occupation has issued a set of demands to the University, based around the idea of keeping education as a public good, not turning into a private, profit making enterprise. Their demands include no course cuts, and no cuts to jobs, wages or conditions for staff, as well as a public rejection of the white paper and a commitment to keeping the University public. You can read the full set of demands here.
The higher education white paper will increase marketisation in Universities, paving the way for wide-scale privatisation, in a similar way to how we have seen the NHS change over the past 15 years. The changes in the white paper will hit universities with a higher proportion of working class students the hardest, as funding gets withdrawn, whilst elite universities get only small cuts. Birmingham City University, with 44% of students from working class backgrounds, is facing the 9th largest funding cuts, whilst places like UCL and Oxford are losing very small sums of money.
More detail about the white paper can be found in this post – especially in the video at the bottom of it.
As well as the issue of the potential privatisation of the higher education system, this occupation is intended to build for the 30th November strikes, to show solidarity with lecturers and support staff who will be out to defend their pensions, and to mobilise students to attend pickets and the teach out.
Birmingham Against the Cuts stands in solidarity with the occupation, which is seeking to defend the attacks on our education system that will disproportionately affect average earners, and reduce social mobility. The white paper is the latest in a series of attacks, including the scrapping of EMA, the raising of tuitions fees, the invention of free schools and the increase in academies, which are stripping the public education system and opening it up to private companies directly in the case of free schools, or through the backdoor in the case of the HE white paper. Academies meanwhile reduce the collectivism of the education system by creating individual schools. It will of course be much easier to introduce a marketised system, or hand over schools to private companies, if they are individual units rather than a collectivised system. We have recently seen Circle Health take over an NHS hospital. This will be repeated with private education providers taking over “failing” schools.
We call on the university to open access to the occupation whilst legal proceedings are ongoing. We believe that this is not just the legally correct route to take, but also the morally correct decision, as the occupation has been peaceful, and is not causing disruption to students or staff, since the building is not in use.
We ask security to stand with the students, and tell the university that they do not feel that they should be preventing access to the building, and that this is not a security issue. We hope to see solidarity between all staff members and students, as the students seek to take action to defend the education system. As always it is the management at the university who make the cuts, but never on their own pay packet. Support staff at the university have accepted real-terms pay cuts this year, but the vice-chancellor saw a 10% pay increase, to £392,000/year (plus a house, car and other benefits).
We thank the guild for showing support to the occupation and ensuring that their human rights are met by the University. This shows a marked difference from previous administrations at the guild and hope that it indicates a change in direction that will see the guild seek to resist changes to the education system at the University, rather than simply seek to maintain a seat at the table.
Please send the students messages of support and solidarity to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can keep up to date with events by following them on their website, facebook or twitter.
Update: The occupation is now ended, as the University got a high court injuction, and were moving to evict. The occupiers all left and none were stopped or had ID taken. This should make it hard for the University to take disciplinary action and we hope that they will not attempt to do so.
At our public meeting tonight, a further expression of solidarity was made by the meeting, not knowing that at the same time, the University were moving to end the occupation.