Article published: Saturday, May 23rd 2015
The occupation of the University of Manchester’s Harold Hankins Building came to end on Thursday. Having held the space for over a week, the students decided to leave, stating that their actions had “shown that education doesn’t have to be a market transaction but can be a collective social endeavour.”
The university had been under occupation since last Wednesday when around 30 students, acting as part of the campaign group Free Education MCR, barricaded themselves in to the business school building, refusing to leave until the institution’s senior management responded to their demands for a free, liberated and democratic education.
Explaining the thinking behind the group’s latest action, Jessica, a University of Manchester student who was part of the original group of occupiers, said: “A lot of us were shocked and very disappointed at the election results, so we decided to act quickly.” The students were primarily taking aim at the increasing marketisation of education, a trend which they expect to worsen with another five years of Tory rule.
As universities become more influenced by the market, the activists argue, education is increasingly seen as an individual investment rather than a public good. Students are not treated as active participants in an academic community but as passive consumers.
The space, which is currently being converted into a £50m hotel and ‘executive education centre’, was chosen to be symbolic of the institution’s profit-driven model. By staging an occupation, the group intended to “reclaim space from the university’s corporate projects” and use it to promote and practice free education.
A public debate on the occupation, organised by politics lecturer Miriam Ronzini, was held outside the Arthur Lewis building on the University campus after the occupation was ended. For Ronzini, the meeting was intended as a public discussion of the issues surrounding the recent occupations at the University and to hear about the students’ achievements, debate future plans and discuss experiences of occupations all over the world. The group heard from Professor Ingrid Robeyns from the University of Utrecht, who spoke about her experience of involvement with student occupations in the Netherlands.
The meeting was well-attended by University staff and undergraduate and postgraduate students, who discussed the links between tuition fees in higher education, the conditions for casualised staff working for the university, and the pressures placed on academic staff by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), and urged for mobilisation under the broader anti-austerity agenda.
The student movement has been revitalised over the past few months, with last November’s march for free education drawing 10,000 protestors to the streets of Central London. Since then, a number of occupations have been held across the UK, from Edinburgh to the London School of Economics (LSE), with students calling for the total restructuring of an education system that they see as being increasingly dominated by the market.
“What Free Education MCR have been working on this year is broadening our vision of free education beyond the idea of it being financially free”, said Jessica. The occupiers’ far-reaching list of demands demonstrated that they were fighting for much more than the abolition of fees. Amongst other demands, the students were calling for the university to end the use of zero-hours contracts on campus, become an accredited Living Wage employer and divest from the fossil fuel industry.
However, management refused to allow access into the occupation, a stance which the students claimed was a restriction of their democratic right to protest. The demonstration was faced with a constant and, at times, heavy-handed security presence to prevent more students from joining the occupation.
After a night of conflict between students and security staff on Monday, demonstrators held a solidarity demonstration, marching across campus before setting up a secondary occupation at the university’s Visitors Centre, demanding that management ‘open the doors’ to the initial occupation. Another ‘shoccupation’ was staged on Wednesday at the Division for Marketing and Communication with the same single demand.
During the occupation, a spokesperson for the university said: “The university supports the right of anyone to demonstrate peacefully within the law. However, the occupation of university buildings disrupts the daily running of the institution. A number of students are occupying a room in the Harold Hankins Building and are free to leave anytime they wish.”
The students made it clear, though, that their intention was not to disrupt the running of the university but to enhance it. They argued that the dispute could have been avoided if management had ‘lifted the siege’, removed the security guards and allowed the students to use the space as a ‘free education centre’. “The idea behind the space was that we’d be able to invite students in, discuss free education and practice some of those things we’ve been talking about”, said Jessica. “It was going to be closed for the summer anyway. It’d be nice if the university let the students have the space so they could talk about these things and actually educate themselves.”
The students left the occupation on an optimistic note. Emboldened by the messages of solidarity they’d received throughout the week, they were adamant that the occupation was “just the beginning”. “We are part of something bigger than ourselves”, read the activists’ closing statement, “and although this occupation was suffocated by the denial of free access, we refuse to back down.”
For more information and details about the next meeting, see the campaign’s Facebook group Free Education MCR.
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