According to Regulations
University fees are a dead issue from the point of view of the major political parties. But the last year has seen the development of a new student protest movement that attempts to move beyond the question of fees to the broader logic of the Browne Report. Local campaigns to pay a living wage to support staff have merged with calls for flatter top-to-bottom wage ratios and a reshaped, democratic university administration involving students and academics as well as managers. It's nothing to match the size and anger of 2010, but the movement possesses something like its reanimated spirit – together with the usual attachment of the British left to heroic defeat.
The main tactic has been to occupy a room in a part of the university dedicated to administration, post your demands, and wait to be kicked out – which happens quickly, and sometimes with violence. The police are willing defenders of the neoliberal university. Breaking up an occupation at the University of London in December last year, an officer punched a student in the face. Another fabricated a charge of assault against a friend of mine, which he only recently beat in court. Along with violence, there's increasing surveillance. At least four people in Cambridge have been approached to provide information on student groups in the last two years. One reported being followed around a supermarket while out shopping with his daughter; another was threatened with prosecution if she told anyone else about the approach.
In at least one case, a student protester has been added to a list of domestic extremists. ‘Domestic extremism’ is a notoriously elastic term, but the police's working definition is that it ‘relates to the activity of groups or individuals who commit or plan serious criminal activity motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint’.
Pat is a Birmingham student currently on a leave of absence for health reasons. His parents recently received a letter from West Mercia police, saying that their colleagues in the West Midlands force had ‘received some concerns about your son’. Pat had been identified as a target for the Channel programme, a ‘key element of the Prevent strategy’: ‘Channel is about safeguarding children and adults from being drawn into committing terrorist-related activity. It is about early intervention to protect and divert people away from the risk they face before illegality occurs.’ Pat’s parents were told that their son ‘is not in any trouble’. He has been arrested once, but never charged with any offence.
Information flows freely between universities and the police. In the three years to April 2014, Birmingham gave the police information on current students on twenty occasions. They have also called the police in to deal with protesters several times. On 29 January, students were made to give their details as a condition for leaving a kettle, a practice the High Court had ruled illegal in May 2013. Pat was among those arrested for refusing to comply, and automatically suspended from the university as a result. He says that this ‘directly triggered’ a worsening of his clinical depression and caused him to take a break from his studies. (Another Birmingham student has said that the university counselling services denied them confidentiality on account of their involvement in the protest.)
Universities regard the police and the courts as a convenient stick with which to threaten dissenting students. When Konstancja Duff was convicted of criminal damage in February, one of the police witnesses told Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court that the University of London's deputy director of property was ‘very keen to press charges'. The 'criminal damage' in question consisted of writing a slogan in chalk. Duff was ordered to pay £1010 towards the cost of repairs and prosecution.
Simon Furse, one of the most prominent student activists at Birmingham, was taken to court earlier this year, accused of assaulting a university security guard. The guard's evidence was rejected – one magistrate called his testimony ‘manifestly unreliable’ – but had Furse been convicted, he would surely have been expelled from the university. This may be why, as the guard admitted in court, his managers were adamant he should pursue the case.
In comparison with the magistrates’ courts, university internal disciplinary proceedings are obscure and arbitrary. At Birmingham, Furse and Kelly Rogers recently learned that they've been suspended for nine months for their part in the occupation of the Senate Chamber last November. University hearings, despite their serious financial, professional and emotional consequences, and their quasi-legal style (charges, evidence, witnesses, sentences), are not conducted with the same procedural rigour as court trials, nor are 'convictions' subject to the same standard of proof. A university spokesperson told me the suspensions were handed down ‘in accordance with our regulations’. The university’s disciplinary regulations set out the various sanctions that can be applied, but they don't give any indication as to how they relate to the various offences that might come before a hearing. Another occupation, in protest at the suspensions, was evicted yesterday morning. Yet more suspensions may well follow, in accordance with regulations.