A Right to the University

Brenna Bhandar

On 4 December, the University of London was granted an injunction from the High Court that prohibits ‘persons unknown (including students of the University of London) from ‘entering or remaining upon the campus and buildings of University of London for the purpose of occupational protest action’ for the next six months. Many such injunctions have been granted to universities across the country over the past four years, with increasing frequency and ever wider restrictions on student protest. In this case, the University of London argued that the occupation of Senate House threatened the liberty and freedom of senior university personnel, and presented a risk of damage to property, despite assurances from the occupiers that staff were free to come and go from the building and no such damage would occur. The eventual eviction of the occupiers was rough and violent. On 5 December, 35 students were arrested and several of them detained overnight. Some were assaulted by the police.

‘The action is restorative,’ the occupiers’ official statement said, ‘displacing the undemocratic and unaccountable management with a democratic space for the free pursuit of knowledge, critical enquiry and dissent.’ Their specific demands related to the democratic deficit in university governance, the privatisation of service provision and the student loan book, and the working conditions of academic, cleaning and maintenance staff.

The use of injunctions to quash protest is an indicator of how deeply privatisation has taken root in British universities. Injunctions are a private law remedy. They are being granted to prohibit protest as if universities, as legal persons, were like any other private property owner; as if students were like any people at large, violating the property rights of the university. The claimant in this case alerts the court to the Code of Student Discipline, implying that students who take part in sit-ins and occupations are in breach of their contract with the university. The right to express dissent, the rights of freedom of association and expression, and entirely legitimate concerns about university governance, are excised from the ostensibly private realms of property and contract.

The University of London owns the land it sits on, but who owns the university? As Andrew McGettigan observes in The Great University Gamble, the corporate forms of universities vary and are in a state of flux. The University of London is a federation of 18 colleges that are to a large extent self-governing. As its website explains:

the University was incorporated originally by Royal Charter in 1836 and is, at present, incorporated by Royal Charter granted in 1863. It is now governed by the University of London Act 1994 and by the Statutes made under it. The governing body of the University is the Board of Trustees and the principal officer is the Vice-Chancellor.

According to the 1994 Act, the governing body ‘shall consider any representations regarding the proposed statute made by Convocation, by any College governing body, by any recognised trade union or by any Professor, Reader, Teacher, member of Convocation or Student’. This provides, as McGettigan notes, an avenue for democratic oversight, at least in theory. The idea that university managers can treat our campuses like the kinds of property normally protected by injunctions from trespass – landed estates, private houses, private corporations – is a symptom of the extent to which neoliberal ideology is now embedded in our universities, along with the political repression that inevitably accompanies privatisation.

The claimant’s only witness made submissions that the ‘Cops off Campus’ demonstration scheduled for 5 December (based on evidence gleaned from Facebook posts and Twitter feeds) involved a ‘highly sensitive issue for many of the students of the university’ and was likely to be ‘very heated and emotive’. Is the spectre of overly emotional students haunting those responsible for university operations? Or is it the idea of a well-organised opposition to university privatisation that places value on democratic governance, fair working conditions and intellectual freedom that repeatedly drives university managers to the courts? By granting possession orders, courts are effectively turning student protesters into trespassers on their universities, liable to fines and imprisonment if they defy the injunctions in order to express dissent.

If there is anything alluring about property as a form, it lies in its mutability, its capacity to be something other than private and exclusive. It is in all our interests to support students, academic and support staff, outsourced cleaners and others in their struggles to reconfigure the ownership of the university, and seize democratic forms of governance the better to create and distribute the social goods that we produce collectively, in spite of current government policies and management strategies.


  • 11 December 2013 at 12:49pm
    Joss Winn says:
    Your readers may be interested that there's a seminar organised by the Co-operative College at the University of London on December 12th, which will try to address some of the issues raised in this post: "who owns the university? ... reconfigure the ownership of the university, and seize democratic forms of governance"

    Co-operative University Seminar:

    A growing number of academics are thinking about ownership and governance (not simply 'academic freedom') of their institutions or building new co-operative universities. I'm maintaining a bibliography here:

  • 12 December 2013 at 1:19pm
    James Heartfield says:
    This is not very convincing. The Middlesex Polytechnic used injunctions to end student occupations when I was there in the 1980s, as did the Polytechnic of North London. To talk about 'privatisation' is a bit unreal, since Universities in Britain have always been private institutions.

    Instead of getting into a false, and feeble defence of the University as a part of the welfare state, you ought instead to stand up for freedom of speech for students.

  • 13 December 2013 at 11:00am
    Harry Stopes says:
    I hardly think that institutions are either corporate, or part of the 'welfare state' - that's a bit simplistic. But you're right to point out that universities have always been private. A better word than 'privatisation' in this case would be something that describes the transformation of universities along corporate lines. Even if the big universities are, and will likely remain, nominally non-profit, they are increasingly run like big businesses, whose managers see themselves like business people and are paid accordingly. In that sense, they're a lot like large hospital complexes in the United States. They're not profit making, per se, but lots of people make lots of money off them, and derive profit from them, for instance, by supplying outsourced services - one of the issues about which the Senate House occupiers were protesting.