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 suggested before the summer break, but intensified with the beginning of term. At this point the UK Border Agency had revoked London Met’s ability to take international students, a move which rattled those at the top many institutions. Whispers were that the UKBA might come after a Russell Group university next…
At this point Newcastle Free Education Network decided to start seriously campaigning about the issue. We held a meeting exploring what had gone on at London Met, and how marketisation and state racism had come together to create the proposal of intensive monitoring at universities. We made these points at the first Students’ Union Council meeting of the term, and 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 at all.
The monitoring system would apply to all lectures – reflecting the neoliberal vision of the university: top-down, quantifiable, with relations between students and staff closer 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 eyes of the University insofar as it meant avoiding another potential funding crisis (international students are a quarter of the student population at Newcastle and usually pay over double those of “home” students). The impact of education cuts underpins to the logic of co-operation 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, attempted 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 vs. the impractical archaic. Meanwhile, there was no mention of the increasing gravitation towards thinking in terms of cost and the underlying xenophobia.
Management employed the logic that currently defends austerity – of ‘no choice but to cut’. Chris Brink, the Vice Chancellor, employed the Labour City Council’s mantra of ‘don’t blame us, blame central government’ in defence of the proposals. However, 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 cutting 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. 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.
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 ‘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. Many 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. NFEN 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 legally 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 Newcastle 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 announced that biometrics were no longer being considered.
This demonstrated that campaigns which critically and creativelyengage with students can win. However, 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 procedures that create a state of fear amongst international students and divide them from the wider community, the Students’ Union insists 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 students face.