Challenging the neoliberal university: Inside the Warwick occupation

A building at the University of Warwick has been occupied since last week, after Police violence broke up a peaceful protest. Martin Platais reports from within the occupation.

picture courtesy of Warwick4FreeEducation

picture courtesy of Warwick4FreeEducation

On Wednesday 3 December, the management of Warwick University sent in police armed with Tasers, dogs, and CS-spray who proceeded to break up a peaceful sit-in being conducted by the Warwick for Free Education campaign. Students were assaulted, CS-sprayed, and arrested. The following day, a thousand students responded by attending a Cops off Campus demonstration, with part of the demonstration proceeding to occupy the university’s Rootes Building.

At least a dozen students have remained in the occupation round-the-clock, with their numbers boosted by visits of supporters, including students and academics at Warwick and activists from further afield. The university has been slow to respond, only issuing the papers for a Possession and Injunction Hearing on Tuesday 9 December. Management’s assumption that the occupiers would disperse of their own accord is indicative of how little response there has been to the unprecedented marketisation of education and casualisation of staff since 2010. There can be no doubt that such expectations are encouraged by the shameful positions recently taken by Toni Pearce and others in the leadership of NUS, a self-interested political cowardice that has been mirrored by Warwick SU’s own silence and inertia over the last week.

Those who have remained in the occupation are from several universities, from a range of backgrounds, and of various political affiliations. For many, it is their first experience of occupation. Others are experienced activists, for whom the university’s resort to court-orders to reclaim an important function-building as conference season gets underway comes as no surprise. That corporate concerns have been the university’s point of departure in dealing with its students is borne out by its refusal to seriously engage with the occupiers demands at negotiations earlier today. As one of the organizers present in the meeting said, ‘management is keen to restrict any expression of opinion into narrow and suffocating “democratic” channels, and it’s scared of us doing anything that challenges the legitimacy of their bureaucracy’. Echoing the sense that universities and the NUS alike have failed to fight attacks on the right to education, the organizer added, ‘students are realizing that that the institutional channels are bankrupt, and that we have to rely on more direct and confrontational methods in order to get our voice heard.’

One student's impression of today's negotiations with the university’s management.

One student’s impression of today’s negotiations with the university’s management.

The university’s refusal to negotiate with an occupation that has commanded widespread support amongst Warwick’s students and staff and inspired multiple occupations in solidarity across the country relies on a further criminalization of protest. On Friday, a court will issue an injunction effectively banning any further occupations in Warwick University for the next year, and serve a possession order allowing bailiffs to evict this occupation by force. Caught between the disproportionate force deployed against the initial protest and the impending use of substantial legal threats to quash direct action, the occupiers have grappled with the question of how to proceed. Although the occupation has inflicted significant disruption and expense on the university, they are adamant that this will be only the beginning of a programme of coordinated action against the drive to convert universities into businesses that extort their students, exploit their staff, and get away with it by suppressing legitimate protest and dissent.

Before they are evicted, the students will host several speakers, reclaiming a space that would otherwise be filled with conference guests. Encouragingly, this is not regarded as a mere gesture of defiance, but as part of a drive to politicize the student-body. As another activist from Warwick said:

The Cops off Campus demo saw large numbers of people come out in protest at the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters. The task ahead of us is to point out to these people that cops will always be necessary in a university that’s being run as an institution of neoliberal capitalism. This occupation must be part of a drive to build a broader movement of resistance.

That this occupation has forced the university to incur the expense of a court order is testament to the resolve of the students who went into occupation and to the solidarity they have inspired. Going forward, they plan to use the university’s crackdown in order to demonstrate to typically apolitical students that their revulsion at police-violence is an inadequate sentiment when treated as an isolated issue. The occupiers have been systematically failed by their elected representatives, and know that the task ahead of them is to show to their fellow students that securing their rights against the governments, universities, and corporations that collude in hollowing out education for profit will not be achieved by individual actions, but by organizing and fighting back.

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