In times of occupation, or the fear of it, university management routinely circulates documents to lecturers with titles like ‘General Security Measures’ and ‘Student Disruption: General Guidance for Staff’. These documents instruct us in the following ways: ‘Individual staff should not engage/debate with protestors’; ‘decline, politely, to enter into argument (whether with those involved in the disruption or those not involved or opposed) over the rights and wrongs of the case’.
Lecturers are further instructed to ‘keep College plans confidential - do not divulge information to those NOT involved in the disruption or to staff unconnected with the action’, and to ‘secure all doors, secure all confidential papers in locked cabinets, possibly removing the most sensitive items, close down all computers - if action is not imminent, keep one open for messages’.
Don’t talk to students, don’t listen to them, certainly don’t try to understand why they might be angry. The common cause of lecturers and students in opposing education cuts and fee increases haunts these desperate internal communications. The message is clear: students are at all times moments away from becoming a feral mob out to destroy university property, mess with internal communications and disrupt the smooth running of the contemporary marketized university.
In early January 2011, an officer from Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism unit sent an email to staff at London universities which reads as follows: ‘I would be grateful if in your capacity at your various colleges that should you pick up any relevant information that would be helpful to all of us to anticipate possible demonstrations or occupations, please forward it onto me.’
Lecturers are to become informants; their students the enemy within - ‘terrorists’. Lecturers involved in supporting the student protests in November have their photographs splashed across newspaper covers: ‘Full Marks for the Riots say Lecturers’, attacking staff at Goldsmiths who had defended the occupation of Tory Party HQ at Millbank. Just as staff and students were suspended by their own management as a consequence of supporting the Middlesex philosophy protests in 2010, a clear divide has opened up between those who understand that their cause is the same as that of their students, and those who see students as little more than tiresome (if profitable) units to be shuffled through on their way to jobs that increasingly don’t exist. (It should be noted, though, that some institutions have managers who understand and share the concerns of staff and students: in early December Paul O’Prey, Vice Chancellor of Roehampton University - alongside Les Ebdon of the University of Bedfordshire and Caroline Gipps of the University of Wolverhampton - refused to sign a letter originally intended to be signed by all English Vice Chancellors supporting the fee increases.)
The idea that staff and students are opposed on the question of fees and cuts, and should operate in mutual suspicion of one another, is indicative of a broader and more fundamental confusion in the way students and staff are supposed to relate to each other in the contemporary university. The introduction of fees, and the university’s description of students as ‘clients’, has led to a disastrous, mutually destructive compact. Are the students buying a degree? Are lecturers selling them a product? Should students expect lecturers to provide them with whatever they want because they are told to feel that they are paying for a service? When staff and students march together on protests, when staff support occupations and students defend their lecturers, then the true stakes of the current university system are made manifest. They are attacking us, all of us, and, no matter how many police requests and paranoid internal documents we receive, we must defend our students at all costs.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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