UAL Students Occupiers at UAL

Students were taken to court by University of the Arts London for occupying in protest against cuts to further education and Foundation degree courses. Anna Dakin reports

Hundreds gathered in solidarity outside the Rolls Building at The Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday 14th April to march in support of the University of the Arts London (UAL) student group OccupyUAL, who were taken to court by their own university for occupying a space at Central Saint Martins art school in protest against cuts to further education and Foundation degree courses. The 15 UAL students named in the injunction were faced with the daunting prospect of court with no legal representation, and the possibility of being ordered to pay huge court fees.

UAL is one of the largest art schools in the world; foundation courses are some of the last few free further education courses available in the UK to young people. Students went into occupation to protest against the proposed axing of 560 places on UAL Foundation courses in art and design. This loss will be hugely culturally significant. The action taken by UAL against its students could be a solidifier of the alarming trend away from free education as numerous other free courses are cut as the government significantly reduces funding.

Foundation courses in art and design offer school leavers experimental study in the creative field for a year for free. For most students pursuing foundation study in the arts is vital to the consolidation of their commitment to embarking on a degree course in a subject which usually leads to a financially precarious career path. In a society where the daunting £40k+ debt (for course and subsistence costs over three years) taken on by university students is becoming normalised, it is tempting for them to think with financial practically. Making a commitment to an arts based degree course is becoming more and more difficult for students whose parents can’t offer financially support. This leaves a yawning gap in the social comment coming out of art colleges. We need our art to reflect the whole spectrum of our society and not just the few who can afford to go to university.

OccupyUAL’s message is being heard, and the public are starting to take notice. The free education movement, which rarely gets covered on national news, has become a trending topic as the political party’s manifestos on education are being released in line with the general election in May.

The Green Party states, “the fundamental purpose of universities should be to promote enquiry, social innovation and cultural renewal.” They go on to say that “The only people to benefit from the current system are university Vice-Chancellors and senior bureaucrats who award themselves massive pay rises.” University of the Arts Vice Chancellor Nigel Carrington demonstrates this with an annual pay package of £240k.

The emerging ethos of universities seems to submit to the Conservatives manifesto whose aim is to make sure that all young people are either working or learning.” suggesting that young people should be treating learning soley as a means to a job, not placing any value on the social comment and freedom of thought that should be afforded to those pursuing further education. Art Schools are historically liberal institutions where an individual has the intrinsic freedom to challenge current thinking and social norms contributing to the evolution of philosophy, culture and the perception of the human condition in society.

As a UAL student, and an active supporter of OccupyUAL, I am disappointed at the reaction by those in positions of power at my university to our peaceful protest.

UAL’s ethos seems to relate more closely to the Conservative Party manifesto where their stated aims seem unsettlingly interested in isolating the voices of those willing to speak up by taking strike action by “introducing a tougher threshold in heath, education, fire and transport” to instigate action.

UAL endeavoured to manipulate its students against OccupyUAL by closing many of the college’s campuses on short notice over the Easter break. In a statement published to the university’s online homepage Mark Crawley, Dean of Students at UAL, explained that this was “to prevent escalation and further disruption by OccupyUAL” who, situated in a prominent office space in the entrance to CSM for nearly four weeks preceding court action, had little to no affect on the ability of students to access their studios.

In a recently published FAQ about OccupyUAL, the “them and us” attitude of UAL is clear

“The Students’ Union was well aware of the decision to reduce Foundation places and had every opportunity to object for nearly a year before the sit-in but did not do so.” This statement is simply untrue. Shelly Asquith, student elected SU President said “I was not consulted whatsoever over huge changes to our courses; and now I have an injunction being brought against me for having the nerve to protest the cuts.”

We don’t want to fight the management of our university, but they are treating us like the enemy. Sympathetic UAL tutors who historically have been hesitant to do so have now publicly voiced support for OccupyUAL. After court proceedings were issued against their students, 50 tutors from Central Saint Martins signed a public letter to Mark Crawley voicing their support for the protest. They can try to scare us into submission, but it won’t work, because the more they attack us, the more support is voiced and the more united we become.

A statement of solidarity issued by the staff from the BA Fine Art Painting course at Wimbledon College of Art, a part of UAL, reiterates the importance of free speech at traditionally liberal arts universities

“we strongly believe in the right to protest and are deeply concerned to see this legal action – particularly in lieu of such a significant role of the Arts (currently and historically) as politically active and vociferous – and as unafraid of challenging the status quo.”

What is this doing to our society? What are we being taught? How to conform to the dominance of hierarchical structures of the establishment, and that when we question authority it’s response is to intimidate and attempt to alienate individuals?

Free education is something that is becoming less and less available in the UK, which seems foolish when you look to our neighbours in Northern Europe who embrace free education and which is reflected in their highly educated societies.

We have a strange approach to education which suggests that learning should be a purely practical step on the path to a financially motivated notion of success. Is there space in our capitalist society for education that is purely about pursuing ones interests, and expanding ones understanding of the world that we inhabit?

The court did not charge the students £11,000 in court fees (well over the cost of one year of tuition!) as proposed by university management, who spent in excess of that on taking its own students to court. But the 15 named students have been served an injunction for life, making it illegal for them to occupy university spaces in protest. This is particularly unhelpful for next years student elected Campaigns Officer, Anastazja Oppenheim

“Sadly, by taking peaceful protesters to court, the institution proved our point: that it’s run in an authoritarian way, putting profit before students. The management spent a five-figure sum – money coming from our fees – on victimising those who disagreed with their decisions.”

By normalising debt, and devaluing the contribution education makes to society by cutting government support of it, it seems that universities are being compelled to evolve into businesses. Rising up front costs of courses, and ever thinning funding is not something any of the staff agree with. I am worried about my university’s irresponsible running of what is depressingly turning into a business. As fellow occupier said “If they have to treat our university like a business it would be nice for them to at least make sensible business decisions.”

We are being taught that questioning authority leads to cold, alienating scare tactics by the establishment. We are being taught to accept the normalisation of reduced state funding of higher education. We are being taught that we will get what we’re given in our education.

This is not good enough in 21st Century Britain. Staff and students will not be intimidated. This isn’t going to be the last you hear from the students and supporters of OccupyUAL. We are united and we will not put up with this kind of oppression.

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