Our Time is Now

Previously, the Boar explored a past in which students took a stand, though by no means always secured victory, in a number of campaigns. Whether fighting against exorbitant rent prices, department closures, or the cost of car parking, past generations would strike, shout, and occupy. In some respects very little ever seems to change. Our predecessors were faced with the same issues associated with the increasing costs of higher education as we are. Our general response to these affronts today, however, is markedly different.

With very few exceptions, gone are the days of mass strikes, occupations, or boycotts. Today’s students don’t seem to care anymore. In an ever more diverse community, typified by a striking divergence in both degree subjects, and individual cultures and identities, we are paradoxically united and divided by an all-pervasive attitude of “does it affect me?” Given the lack of collective action, the answer seems invariably to be ‘no’.

Taken from the standpoint of a collective student body this attitude is inevitably self-destructive. The reality of the way in which successive governments and the Universities bring about controversial structural change (for example, periodically increasing fees) means that at any given moment, the proposed change will never be drastic enough to mobilise large numbers of students to collectively resist. Student loans, for example, took about ten years to finally replace the grant system. Without the foresight to resist every nuanced, seemingly benign policy revision or recommendation, a succession of defeats have demoralised those who would oppose. In 2010, this cocktail of defeat and disunity has created a tide against which we are increasingly impotent to resist.

Now is the time to act. Although most likely the changes we can bring about won’t have a great impact on our own student experience, it is vital that we seek to ensure that the life we enjoy and take for granted will remain intact for future generations. Simply asking, “does it affect me?” won’t help our younger brothers, sisters, friends and family who will be applying to come to university in the near future.

To effect change, we must build an environment in which resistance is grounded in our every day thoughts and actions, rather than being viewed as the ineffectual reaction of a minority. At present, resistance is synonymous with futility.

However, if students are to be vilified for their apathy it seems a better idea to attack the condition’s cause rather than the individual. After all, universities and the people within them are just another facet or product of the wider society we live in. We may think of higher education as a space to break the mould, in which no attitude or concept is too ‘far out’, no paradigm too arch, but truthfully, our behaviour and social norms are the same here as they are outside ‘the bubble’.

Students protesting tuition fee rises

Students protesting tuition fee rises, photo: Johanna Angman

At the start of the year, a number of us went leafleting halls in anticipation of Richard Lambert’s – our Chancellor, and head of the Confederation of British Industry – visit to campus. He is fiercely in favour of lifting the cap on tuition fees, and so logically, out of sectarian self-interest alone, most students ought to have found his views distasteful. But the most common reaction we encountered whilst drumming up support for our upcoming ‘No to Lambert; No to Fees’ demo was: “Will it affect me?” Always laced with confusion and contempt, and not even a hint of indignant anger. Assaults on our education, the very bread and butter of student activism, were falling on deaf ears. Clearly our understanding of what constitutes our own self-interest needs redefining, but how have we come to be in a place where the rallying cry for defending the cost of our education is met with inertia? You’d think inviting people to say ‘no’ to a government that is greedily eyeing up the £7,000 you and I don’t have in our back pocket would require the bare minimum of convincing and coercion. Apparently this isn’t so.

In the last of the Boar’s series of Union features we trawled through the archives to find campaigns and issues at Warwick that still have echoes in 2010. If the heyday of involvement was in the late ’60s, even during the late ’80s, when we were arguably on the wane, students were more involved. So what’s changed in our society that is borne out in our universities? With Thatcher came the era of privatisation, and a culture of individualism and calloused self-interest. Thatcher may have claimed there to be no such thing as society. Her words have been taken out of context before. If she meant that society isn’t the same thing as the state, that’s fair enough, but the legacy she left behind was one of a total atomisation of society. The subcontracting of every service imaginable has led to ambiguity and the hollowing out of democracy. Who is in charge of refuse collection; hospital cleanliness; energy? Where does the buck stop? A technocratic, economistic culture and discourse smothers us, and takes more and more of decision-making out of the political, democratic realm, and into an economic one. At the same time as this process, the only visible alternative to capitalism, an exhausted and discredited state ‘socialism’, gasped its last breath, its supposed ‘lessons’, its epitaph, having subsequently been invoked as a mantra by liberals and moderates ever since: “communism is a nice idea, but it doesn’t work”. The corollary to this is the observation that “trade unionism is dead”. We don’t really think of our Students’ Union as a union, in the old-school campaigning sense, and this is perhaps the point.

No matter how erroneous the link between genuine socialist ideas (of solidarity and emancipatory politics) and the reality of the Soviet Union, the fact is their strength as a forceful ideological alternative to capitalism is limited, in the UK, to radicals, aging Unionists, and Marxist or Anarchist academics. Our SU has had to embrace an ever-greater commercial orientation, because this is where most of its money comes from. This, plus the recession, budget deficit and staff lay-offs. In short then, the death of the Socialist Idea in the popular consciousness; a structural shift towards profit and privatisation; and the permeation of our culture with values of individualism, consumerism, and a narrow, short-term understanding of our self-interest have all contributed to create the Warwick student of 2010, who is more likely to ask “will it affect me?” than join the picket line for an archetypal student cause.

Many readers may view this article as taking an extreme and, perhaps, unfounded position on the necessity of student action, however, our analysis is supported by evidence from several recent and diverse campaigns.

The Life Sciences departmental merger is a good example of a situation which will impact badly on current and prospective students alike, and yet, unlike in previous years when the Spanish department’s closure solicited an occupation carried out by over a hundred students, most of whom were from other faculties, no effective campaign has really been undertaken. This is doubtless partly because the very language used (‘merger’) makes less immediately apparent the consequences, but also, as John Lapage pointed out to us, “It’s really been a story about the University’s mostly successful bid to keep things quiet until it is too late to do anything about them. By the time we could convincingly argue that this was going to directly affect most students, it was already a done deal.”

The Union has hardly been put in a strong position from which to act, (as Lapage notes, “the only way the Union could have made a big difference on Life Sciences would have been to act last year, when there wasn’t any obvious cause for alarm”) but the lack of a concerted, widespread campaign is indicative of the mentality of narrow self-interest, even though it can be identified as a significant student issue.

Another significant campaign, even if it can’t be accurately described as successful, has been the popular support behind the reinstatement of Sabbatical Officer Isaac Newton Acquah. The campaign coalesced around the ‘Isaac is My Communications Officer’ Facebook group, set up by Charli Fritzner, a friend of Isaac’s. Although Isaac was not reinstated by virtue of any action the group took (hence, the campaign was not truthfully ‘successful’), it is exemplary of the value of Facebook as a tool for mobilisation and engagement. As Fritzner recalls: “It grew from being just me, to being me and Isaac, to having over 1,100 members.” Even if we have sunk into a lethargic dependency on Facebook – its mobilising function is frequently conflated with it being an action in its own right – its strength lies in combination with more tangible, exhilarating campaigning.

In the case of Isaac, the issue was very immediate, because of the personal, human consequences of Council’s decision. Whilst, as Fritzner suggests, ultimately practical concerns prevented an Emergency General Meeting from being called, popular re-engagement with the issue of student politics manifested itself in “group members researching and learning more about the Union and Union Council, with some law students even researching employment law.” Even if born out of dissatisfaction with the state of Union politics, the Isaac incident offers a great insight into the potential breadth (if not depth) of popular engagement.

The S0.21 Solidarity Sit-in of January 2009 is the most typical example of traditional student activism in recent years. As part of a wave of occupations up and the country, the sit-in responded to an escalation of the conflict in Gaza, and lasted for nine days and nights. Judged on the fulfilment of the occupation’s stated demands, S0.21 might be considered a failure. However, its lasting legacy was to galvanise a disengaged student body, and usher in a renewed period of social and political action at the University.

We spoke to Chris Rossdale, one of the organisers of the sit-in, to get his opinion on why the S0.21 occupation remains such a potent moment. Speaking about the strategy of occupation itself, Rossdale noted that the unfamiliarity of the nature of the protest might have contributed to its popularity: “For some, it was the intervention they hadn’t seen at the University for a long time; it harks back to the radical tradition. There hadn’t been an occupation for ten years.”

During nine days of occupation over 400 people had visited or got involved – a figure as yet unrivalled by any subsequent student protest at Warwick. Rossdale elaborated on the causes of its popularity, suggesting: “It came at a time when there was a huge outpouring of anger,” but that alongside this there was an intoxicating atmosphere of empowerment and excitement. “It was fun. Not to have fun misses the point.”

This surely hits the nail on the head. Indeed, whilst researching for the last feature, one recurring theme in student politics throughout the ’70s and ’80s was the perpetual denunciation of Union General Meetings, and Union democracy in general, as being cliquey and boring. As the backlash against Union Council over Isaac’s dismissal shows, this complaint is as widely voiced now as it has ever been.

Perhaps, then, in order to reverse the overarching trend of student apathy, the root of the cause must be addressed. What is presented to us as ‘student politics’ – Union Council, general meetings etc. – is intrinsically distasteful, whilst ‘radical’ student activism is confined to the fringes. Caught between these two styles of politics, it’s hardly surprising that the stock response of most students is apathy.

The most effective resolution to this predicament must be to bring the ethos of radical student politics back into the mainstream. Whereas the Students’ Union is over-encumbered with bureaucracy and a commercial orientation, the organic network that developed between a number of societies and individuals during the sit-in helped nurture a more accessible and exciting political culture – establishing, for a while at least, grass roots action as the most effective means of countering the culture of apathy that has fomented in our society.

It would be reckless to wholesale reject the Union in favour of an irregular, amorphous confederation of societies. However, maybe the time has come to recognise that our efforts could be better orchestrated outside of it, and that its role should simply be one of providing campaigns with legitimacy, and logistical or financial support.

There is no one strategy, no silver bullet to deliver us into a new era free from apathy. In the final analysis though, we can only offer suggestions based on the lessons of the past and present – and our failures speak as loud as our victories. When abstract ideals are humanised and made personal, campaigns tend to garner a far wider support base. Any successful and enduring student involvement can only come from inclusive decision-making, and effective, direct strategies. As has been proven in the past, this can take place before we even consider the role of the Union.

It is this ethos, then, as opposed to any detailed five-year-plan for democratic reform that will be necessary for tomorrow’s students to decide how they want to use their Union. But it must come from us, today, to lay the foundations of a culture which understands the value of resistance and collective response. The pervasive mindset of “does it affect me?” will only be answered in the affirmative if we come to believe that our self-interest can be more than the pursuit of a narrow end-result; that our personal fulfilment is achieved through the process of action itself. Once we come to see value in this way, our numbers and strength can only grow.

S0.21 occupation for Gaza

S0.21 sit-in for Gaza

Occupying students take a break between talks

The Warwick Solidarity Sit-in for Gaza, also commonly referred to as the S0.21 Occupation, took place in January 2009. It lasted for nine days and nights, during which time the social sciences lecture hall was turned into a space for free, autonomous education and thinking. Over 400 people were thought to have participated in some form. A number of people came to give talks and facilitate discussions on a variety of subjects – although the principle focus was on education regarding the situation in Gaza. In addition to this, entertainment was put on in the form of musical performances and film screenings in the evenings, and cooking on a mass scale was provided by individuals from the Students’ Union as an act of support.

The sit-in was organised in late January amidst an unprecedented wave of student occupations up and down the country. There was no central organising committee, however, and neither did the Students’ Union provide administrative support. Instead, organisation and direction was undertaken as a collective in a non-hierarchical fashion, using a form of consensus decision-making.

The sit-in had a number of demands which it addressed towards the University administration, including the issuance of a statement of remorse on the intranet; the facilitation of, and assistance with the collecting of educational resources to send to the largely destroyed Islamic University of Gaza (IUG); and the disinvestment of the University from the arms industry, which has sold to Israel weapons used in the conflict. In order to try and secure its bargaining position, the collective decided to collect signatures calling for an EGM. The emergency motion gained the required signatures and resulted in the best attended Union meeting in a decade, with at least 350 people turning up, causing the venue to be filled to maximum capacity. The motion, to both condemn the humanitarian crisis and offer support for those who performed the sit-in, was supported by 83 percent of those present.

The departing message on the Warwick Solidarity Sit-in Blog summed up the sense of achievement:

“We feel our action has woken the faith in student activism that had been lying dormant at Warwick, that it informed many people that before knew little about the crisis, and that it sent a message to both the rest of the UK and the rest of the world that there are people out there that do care. We really felt that the students were behind us in our action…

“Now we are at the table with the university with student backing, we need to try and win change through the “proper channels”. We also need to harness the joy that so many felt from seeing students take a stand for something, anything. Our time is now.”

The ‘Acquah Affair’

Isaac Newton Acquah, Communications Officer for the Students’ Union, was given a vote of no confidence by Union Council on Monday 15th March, 2010. The vote, which passed by 21 votes in favour, with 17 against and zero abstentions, was unprecedented in Warwick history: it was the first time a sabbatical officer had been successfully no-confidenced and, as a result, sacked from their position.

The motion for no confidence focused on three alleged breaches of the SU constitution, specifically relating to referenda. The most significant infraction related to an all-member email Isaac sent out to nearly 20,000 students, on the Tuesday of referenda week. The message said: “Referenda week is upon us and we are going to have some big issues up for you to decide upon.

“None is bigger than the policy to secure our Union’s independence. Others include removing the sponsorship ban, so any club and society can choose for themselves which companies they can get money from.”

The resolution passed at Union Council claimed this was a violation of referendum regulations in the Union’s constitution, as it could be seen to encourage students to vote a particular way on referenda motions.

Isaac appealed the decision, and was eventually reinstated by the appeal panel two weeks later, although he was censured for his misconduct.

The significant fallout of this incident came in the form of a popular confusion and outrage that Union Council, a body felt to be barely democratically accountable, could sack a well-liked sabbatical officer. The campaign to bring back Isaac focused around a Facebook group entitled ‘Isaac is My Communications Officer’, which, at its peak in the two weeks or so after the initial Council decision, reached around 2,000 members.

The level of popular feeling on the issue was so great that an EGM was expected, as it had been anticipated by an increasing clamour for democratic reform of the Union – as a corollary to Isaac’s reinstatement. Ultimately, the unfortunate timing of the event (coinciding with the Easter holidays and the start of the exam period) may be partly responsible for the failure of a coherent reforming programme to emerge once Isaac’s appeal was successful, leaving the campaign’s early promise unrealised.

The campaign’s support base was, rather crucially, comprised of a diverse demographic, consisting well beyond the usual political types. As a campaign built upon an immediate sense of human interest, it succeeded (for a while) in re-engaging the student body with campus politics.

 

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