By Luke Neal, Newcastle Free Education Network and NCAFC
In 2012 Newcastle University management made plans to introduce biometric fingerprint scanners to all lectures. The scheme was formulated before the summer break, but intensified with the beginning of the new term. At this point the UK Border Agency had revoked London Met’s Highly Trusted Sponsor Status, a move which rattled those at the top of hierarchies in many institutions. Whispers were was that the UKBA might come after a Russell Group university next.
It was at this point we (Newcastle Free Education Network, the on-campus anti-cuts group) decided to start seriously campaigning around the issue. We held a meeting exploring the context to the situation: what had gone on at London Met? Why were we facing so many changes to the way education is administered and measured at this time? Our answers, though not politically uniform, were that both marketisation and state racism had come together to create the proposal of biometric monitoring at universities – a thoroughly managerial approach to education. We made these points at the first Union Council meeting of the term. In the end a decent motion was passed, committing the SU to campaign against biometrics and to oppose attendance monitoring. But for weeks, while the university was seriously investigating the practicalities of fingerprinting all of its students, the SU leadership did very little in terms of an actual campaign.
The monitoring system would apply to lectures only, reflecting the vision of education in the neoliberal university: top-down, quantifiable, with relations between students and staff more akin to that of a teacher and a schoolchild than two engaged adults who mutually benefit from critical interaction. The resort to technical, precision based monitoring methods was legitimate in the University’s eyes insofar as it would mean avoiding another potential funding crisis (international students are a quarter of the student population at Newcastle). The ramifications of education cuts are absolutely central to the logic of co-operating with the UKBA given that the Border Agency’s approval is needed to secure international students’ fees.
The University, often echoed by the leadership of the Students’ Union, did its utmost to present these changes as beneficial to students. Greater monitoring, to them, didn’t mean an attack on our rights and transformation of the kind of education we receive; it was an opportunity for more data for their market models. More monitoring in their eyes meant potential to be more responsive to students.
But in practice it had little do with that. The presentation of biometric monitoring in the positive terms of responsiveness, infallibility and efficiency was disingenuous, divorced from the politics underlying it. This tactic is replicated in almost everything Newcastle Students’ Union does – everything is perceived in terms of efficiency and cost; issues are presented as a choice between the modern, efficient and practical versus the impractical archaic. And meanwhile no mention of the increasing cost-orientation and xenophobia beneath.
Management employed the logic that currently defends austerity – of ‘no choice but to cut’. Indeed the V-C Chris Brink employed the Labour City Council’s mantra of ‘don’t blame us, blame central government’ in defence of the proposals. However the campaign we ran went a long way to undermine both arguments. They eventually dropped the proposals due to popular pressure and increasing national media attention. Like cuts, biometrics aren’t actually necessary. Similarly, with Labour controlled cuts councils, sustained local pressure can make a difference. Of course, there are critical differences between the cases. The UKBA didn’t change its stance towards international students, Newcastle changed its prescription to the Border Agency’s directive. But now we are only treating the symptoms, not the causes, and so are continuing to discriminate against international students. The management succumbed to what was becoming national scrutiny, which was preferable to being highlighted as a heavy-handed institution. Likewise Labour cutting councils cannot use argument of necessity if they are seen to be cutting back more than other authorities – this is the potential of rebel councils, and why the Councillors Against the Cuts network is so important.
In opposition to the moves, we staged several awareness-raising protests. An activist studying fine art made a doorframe fitted with a fingerprint-style scanner, and we, clad in hi-vis jackets and supposedly official expressions, encouraged students to walk through it and confirm their identity. This was, after all, not far from what the University was proposing to introduce. Most students weren’t aware that it was being proposed at all, and were instinctively suspicious of it.
At the November meeting of Union Council, a motion putting the issue of biometric scanning to referendum was passed. We agitated for a vote against biometrics, division between ‘international’ and ‘home’ students, and against all attendance procedures. The arguments For ranged from the untrue (that biometrics were necessary) to the welfarist (constant monitoring ensures students are checked up on). The latter idea that our attendance needs to be constantly monitored to check on our wellbeing, however, is flawed: a student with welfare issues can still show up to every lecture. The results were very strongly against biometrics, clearly disapproving of attendance monitoring, and in favour of measures that didn’t divide the student community according to background. Of course, the referendum in-and-of itself had very little weight against the University. But when reports of the vote, the protests and meetings we had held began to appear, something changed. Kyle Grayson, a politics lecturer who spoke at one of our meetings, had written about it in the Huffington Post; the Newcaslte Journal reported on the vote, citing our leaflets and contrasting the views of staff and the academic registrar on the topic. The Daily Mail even printed a version of that article. The threat to the University’s reputation was now a real thing, and in a matter of days they circulated an email indicating that biometrics were no longer seriously being considered.
The case demonstrates several things about both the state of education and of Student Union democracy. I don’t think that it suggests that referenda are politically useful. They are not inclusive, and most of the important decisions – the writing and presentation of the questions – are out of students’ hands. But when combined with a campaign that creatively and critically engages with students, the referendum proved useful as a context for the press reports which eventually rattled the University hierarchy. Sabbaticals, even if well-intentioned, cannot be relied upon. Even with a strong mandate to do so, the Union’s leadership did not try convince students that biometrics was wrong, and the product of state xenophobia and a shift towards managerialism in education. Instead they presented students with a choice between presumed equals in the form of a referendum. And now, with new procedures that perpetuate a state of fear amongst international students and divide them from the wider community, the Students’ Union is backtracking, claiming that there is nothing we can do. But what we achieved shows the opposite: even a small group of students, if well organised and equipped with critical ideas, can subvert the “inevitable” and “necessary” changes we face.