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A participant gives a firsthand account of how a peaceful student occupation in solidarity with staff and against the privatisation of student loans was violently broken up by police

 

Yesterday Senate House management corridor was occupied by 60 students. The occupation was about a broad range of issues, all relating to the privatisation of education. Under the guise of austerity the government has been pushing through their political agenda by privatising a range of previously public assets. The privatisation of education began with the tripling of tuition fees back in 2010 and 2011 and now the government has proposed placing student debt in the hands of private companies, which will undoubtedly lead to higher interest rates for students. The first batch of student loans has already been sold off; a £900m asset was sold for the ridiculously low price of £160m. The extra debt that will be placed on students is an unfair burden, especially coming soon after the tripling of fees.

Another key factor leading to yesterday’s occupation was the attempt to privatise the University of London Union (ULU). The move would turn the building into a management-run private services centre, which would be run for profit and would not involve any students in decision-making. This again is a move to commercialise student life for the profit of big business. The decision was made by many managers who have office in the Senate House corridor, hence the reason the occupation took place there. The idea was to hold this space to show that students are against this decision.

Fair pay in HE

While student fees have tripled in recent years, universities still refuse to pay the staff fairly. Lecturers' pay has seen a 13% decline in the last 5 years, and PhD students who are integral to students' learning and teach a considerable proportion of contact hours are given a token wage that is barely enough to survive on. Students wanted to show solidarity with the lecturers, who have been on strike recently, the second of which took place on Tuesday. In addition, cleaners and university staff are not being paid fair wages. They do not have equal sick pay or holiday pay or even pensions. It is these people who make universities run and they are being discounted for the profits of the management, many of whom remain on six figure salaries.

The occupation took place at this time after a small victory for the cleaners as they were recently offered a better deal in the light of their strike. However, this deal is not what was originally asked for and is simply not good enough. Cleaners have not been offered pensions, among other things. The occupation was asking for the full terms to be accepted and the occupation comes before a 3-day strike next week. It was extremely important to show solidarity with the people who make universities function and they deserve a fair deal.

Why Senate House? It has been an iconic building throughout London’s history, famously inspiring ‘The Ministry of Truth’ in Orwell’s 1984, as well as being the building that Hitler designated as the space he would have his head office in if he were to have taken over Britain. The space has clear symbolism, hence an occupation here would be significant. It is also where the head offices of the University of London management are located, so it would be occupying the space of the people who can influence the decisions on privatising sections of our education.

The occupation

The occupation began with students rushing into the corridor and handing out demands to people inside. The doors were secured but some of the staff chose to remain inside their offices and locked themselves in. Before many of them could do this, students began to question them over the shutting down of ULU and the unfair conditions they offer their workers who clean their offices. Also some students helped the staff ensure the papers left in the corridor ensuring they were kept safe inside their room.

The entrance doors were then barricaded, with an exit set up to get people in and people out. A media room was immediately set up with a number of students on Twitter and Facebook sending out the demands and stating that Senate House had been occupied. Once people who wanted to leave were gone, a democratic meeting was set up to discuss how the area would be kept secure overnight and what would take place if the Senate House security were broken up. This was all decided through a democratic process and students voted together on every decision.

The meeting was adjourned with a recall time decided on. In the hour or so that followed, pandemonium broke out as it came to light that a student who was in the occupation had their laptop stolen by the security. They took the laptop and then locked themselves back inside one of the offices.

Suddenly, a large number of police showed up and began demanding that those inside be let out. It is worth stating that all Senate House staff were encouraged to leave a number of times and were told they had always been free to leave and that their own security staff or a legal observer would be happy to escort them out. At this point many Senate House security staff and police turned up outside one of the two doors and began to break inside.

There was one door which had been particularly hard to secure and police came in through this door. They then proceeded to shout, asking for the staff to be let out, something that students had tried to facilitate from the beginning. As someone ran to get a chair to let them climb over the barricade, the security jumped in and began to grab and throw people around. The police followed and were cornering people ripping them away from their fellow students and dragging them out of the building.

 

The line advanced and students had no where to go. This did not mean the security guards were any less violent and showed the traits of an angry mob. Protesters are somewhat used to this kind of behavior from Senate House security, and it has become expected that they will openly punch and kick, and grab protesters by the throat. But their actions are not justified. One of the great hypocrisies had become apparent, that protesters were fighting for staff rights. By this point protesters proceeded to be dragged out while others made a quick escape down a ladder.

Police violence

Once protesters were outside, they began to make pleas for their things to be returned; some students had passports, wallets (including oyster cards for travel home), phones and laptops inside. These pleas soon turned to anger at the police as they showed the same heavy-handedness that the Senate House security had done, pulling people's hair and openly punching and kicking people who were on the ground. Four arrests were made of people who resisted this violence. The protesters marched down to Holborn police station where their friends were being held and the protest continued.

Clearly the police had played a dirty trick by ensuring the staff remained inside until they could muster enough force to break in. At the time students were concentrating on facilitating the staff to leave. However, if the space had been able to be secured more easily, the occupation would have lasted longer. The atmosphere inside never got a chance to be settled and if the staff had been persuaded to leave this could have taken place.

The temporary occupation has, however, sent out a message to the University of London management that students are not willing to sit back and let universities be slowly privatised while they get rich and continue to pay their staff unfairly. Education is a right, not a privilege.

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