A series of student occupations against university cuts is underway and look set to escalate. Dan Poulton went along to Central St Martin's college where free foundation courses face the axe
There are unexpected scenes in the admin centre of Central St Martin's college – part of the University of the Arts London (UAL) – which now resembles a funky call centre, with a radical twist. I'm greeted by Sofia who sits behind a bank of computer terminals reading a book on radical feminism. She's taking a break from what is a hive of activity as students get on the phones and social media to connect with a growing network of occupations across a number of colleges in London.
Sofia, a MA student from Sweden, is a member of the feminist society and the group Arts Attack who describe themselves as a "collective of art students fighting for free education, workers' rights and radical alternatives to the art school/market system."
“Foundation courses are the ony free courses within the arts, open to students under 18 from Britain and the EU and now they're cutting that away,” she tells me.
“Taking that away limits opportunities and also leads to cuts in teaching positions." 560 places face the axe, about 100 here at Central St Martins.
"They're closing the course completely at LCC and making cuts at Camberwell as well as dozens of staff at risk of redundancy," says UAL President Shelly Asquith.
"We only found out about the cuts last week and had no consultation with student or staff unions."
After a quick meeting a group of students decided to go into occupation.
“The biggest cuts are being made at the London College of Communications (LCC) but we decided to occupy CSM instead because this is the face of UAL and the building they alway want to show off, where all the celebrities come,” Sofia tells me.
“This is the neoliberal capital of the UAL. If you want to make an impact, do it here. We went into the room to pretend to have a meeting, waited until the receptionists had gone and closed the doors. That was last Thursday night. So we’ve been here over a week.”
After a meeting with the executive lasting a mere 20 minutes management made no concessions to the students' demands.
“They just wanted us out by 12 noon today but so far have done nothing,” says Sofia.
“We've said as long as our demands aren't met we're not moving. We're keeping it strong as long as we can.”
The occupiers have been using the receptionists' phones to make links with other occupations, Sofia tells me.
“We do a lot of media work and networking with our all allies in LCC, Camberwell, Wimbledon, Chelsea. This concerns all students so we need to get the word out there. We also stand in solidarity with LSE and Goldsmiths who went into occupation yesterday and KCL who also went in. We organise demos and keep in contact over the phones.'
It's a network ready to coordinate responses to management's moves.
“We’ll send people to whatever campus needs help. When you do occupations it's a lot about the number of bodies in the space.”
Sofia belives these cuts are part of the wider austerity agenda.
“The uni will always blame the government for making cuts even if it’s nothing to do with it. It’s all about piorities. I'm from Sweden where education is free. The only way to get to a free society on any level is to have free education. That's how you limit class differences and inequality: to let people educate themselves. Putting people in debt will put them off going to university. Then you will have a class division. If you come from a working class background you will be put off.”
“The message to students is to take action. We have proved this has led to more occupations. It's time for students to take action. If you put pressure on they will have to do something.”
Students today are seen as customers, Sofia tells me.
“They're like a corporation paying large salaries to the people at the top. The fact that they see students like that shows you how wrong their value system is.”
#OccupyUAL has had a busy week with a rally on Monday, a demonsration on Wednesday and on Friday a day of creative workshops, banner making and more shifts at the radical call centre.
“It will look bad for UAL's image to kick students out, escpecially as art schools should be ok with political activists,' Sofia reasons.
“Initially some students have been hostile,' she says about the occupation's reception, 'but as soon as you start to talk to people students are very keen to get involved. There's lots of frustration amongst students in general.”
Teachers have phoned in expressing their support for the occupation but are too afraid to give their names.
“It shows how bad their work contracts are if they can’t say what they want to say,” Sofia tells me.
Reactions from workers have been mixed.
''We're in touch with reception staff here. One reaction is to see the occupation as a disruption and I totally understand that but on the other hand they know why we're doing it and we’ve allowed them to come in and take their personal belongings. There is a general sympathy. Most people are really supportive but a lot of people can’t be vocal.”
The creative energies unleased by the students action is inspiring. But occupations can be hard work. Sofia tells me 'we've had at least ten people sleeping here at night on rota, about 40 people doing shifts on top of that and over 100 people joining in in different locations.'
“We only found out about the cuts last week and had no consultation with student or staff unions,' say Shelly Asquith. "The cuts kick in from Setpember, leaving us no choice other than to take direct action."
“When people call in to the admin centre asking for information we tell them that the place is in occupation. They get a bit confused. We refer them to the website and ask them to like the occuaption on Facebook."
“As well as the course cuts they're cutting £500,000 on widening participation, outreach to local schools, youth offending centres, community groups... to get people in who would not normally apply. Working class people wont be able to come. LCC has a large number of black students. There's a big class issue.”
Shelly agrees on the importance to link the student occupatons to oppsoition to austerity such as the June 20 End Austerity Now demonstration.
“It's important to link the different occupations to the broader issues and lend our support to buidling a movement.”
I ask her what's next.
“Next up we're meeting with students and staff unions. There's no sign of them backing down so there's no sign of us leaving. Escalation is the only option.''
Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner. His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.
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