Last week I took a 7 hour coach journey down to Birmingham. There was a crying baby behind me and I was hungover- why did I put myself through that agony? I was attending the “Defend the Right to Protest” march at The University of Birmingham.
Things aren’t great for activists in Birmingham- the University recently took out an injunction banning protests on campus. They suspended sabbatical officer Edd Bauer from his job for 3 months pending an investigation from the police after he hung a banner from a bridge outside the Liberal Democrat national conference. (If you’re interested, the banner said “Traitors not welcome. Hate Clegg, love NCAFC (the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts)). He was subsequently found innocent of any charges, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d been unnecessarily suspended. Birmingham are also in the process of disciplining student Simon Furse for occupying last year (despite 50 other Birmingham students giving their name and declaring in a “I am Spartacus” campaign that they had also participated in the occupation.)
Add all of these together and you have some seriously oppressive structures forming. The University of Birmingham are sending out a clear message- we don’t want you to challenge us, and if you do, we will punish you. This is incredibly dangerous territory, especially for a university. Universities are places where ideas should (and indeed must) be challenged, where ideas can be informed and the where status quo be totally disassembled. Universities should promote this; they are there to create innovative thinkers.
It’s indicative of the dreadful state of education at the minute that free speech is being so severely oppressed- in a political climate where education is increasingly seen as a cold, hard commodity, the intrinsic value of knowledge, learning, and life experiences is lost. People earning £400k+ (such as Vice Chancellor at Birmingham, David Eastwood) or the 124 members of staff at Edinburgh who pocketed over £100k in 2010/11 don’t care about preserving these things.
Thankfully the situation in Edinburgh isn’t quite so bleak- EUSA actually supported last year’s occupation of George Sq Lecture Theatre which had members from all across the country, and protest has never (yet) been condemned on campus. Instead, Edinburgh has a vibrant activist network and a strong campaigning community- we’ve seen people from all across the political spectrum come together to protest the cuts and especially to protest the introduction of 9k fees for English students.
I can’t imagine this not being the case, and I can’t imagine feeling too intimidated to protest. I can’t imagine thinking “I really care about cause X, but if I go on this march, I’ll get thrown out of university”. These intimidation tactics almost completely shut down debate and they almost completely shut down the free education side of the argument – which is shameful.
Birmingham did a great job of proving their resilience, and they’ve set the bar high for other institutions. Their march had representation from 15 different universities (as geographically widespread as Edinburgh and UCL) and also from NUS (National Union of Students) and NUT (National Union of Teachers). It showed that people care. This upset management- security harassed students, the police were called and some people were even arrested (to later be released).
We all need to be protesting at a time when our greatest public services are being attacked- when our NHS is being taken out of our hands, when our education system is being commodified and our young people expected to partake in slave labour. Education has value in and of itself, as does free speech. That’s why we call them “human rights” and they should be defended tooth and nail.
We need to ensure that our university never follows the likes of Birmingham in oppressing free speech and protest, and that our culture of resistance remains alive. NUS have called a week of action for 12th-16th of March. There will be a walkout on the 14th. In the spirit of this article, and in tribute to those in Birmingham, I encourage you to get behind it and protest!