Yesterday we held a teach-in at the University of Birmingham as part of the two weeks of action leading up to the National Demonstration for Free Education, happening on 19th November. There were workshops on a wide range of issues from “What is happening in Higher Education?” to “How to incorporate intersectionality into your activism” and a look at student movements in Quebec, Germany and Hong Kong. We deliberately chose not to book a room for this event but instead to take a space on campus without the permission of the university. This made our teach in an “occupation” under the university’s definition. Previous occupations have been greeted with court injunctions, security guard violence and suspensions. So why bother? Why not just book a room and make our lives easier? By Defend Education Birmingham
By not participating in the management’s room booking system, we chose to reclaim a space that should simply be available to us as students of the university. Room bookings serve to exclude students from academic spaces, creating narrow sets of criteria which determine who does and does not have the right to use university space. We believe that the university is a community and should be run by the students and staff who study and work here. We do not accept the authority of management to control the behaviour of the rest of the university community and determine where, when and what is appropriate for them to engage with. By taking and occupying, we challenge the barriers set by the university and empower students to use their university in a way not defined for them by management.
We felt that this is particularly relevant when this event was aimed at the mutual education of students. We have created a space within the university where students can educate one another about the neoliberalism within our institution and higher education as a whole, where we can critique and question underlying assumptions which we are prevented from doing in our formal education. We can expand the idea of learning beyond sitting in lectures and reading books to an experience where we share our knowledge and learn from each other in ways not sanctioned by management.
The space we took was ours to control. All decisions within it were democratically made by those participating in the teach in. Actions like these demonstrate an alternative to the hierarchical, undemocratic governance which we must endure in so many aspects of our everyday lives and show participants that things can be organised differently, in a way where those affected by decisions are the ones to make them.
The value of occupations does not stop there. Although ours did not aim to be disruptive, using occupations to disrupt the normal functioning of universities is a tactic which can be used to great effect. Whilst as students we cannot withdraw our labour in the form of a conventional strike as workers might, we can instead take space and use what we do have, our bodies, to create a similar effect in shutting down key processes in the university until our demands are met. They also create actions of resistance worth talking about and will often garner far more media attention than if students simply write to newspapers detailing their oppositions to the university and the higher education system.
The sheer level of repression faced by students who engage in occupation and tens of thousands of pounds management are prepared to spend on stopping them, as the numerous injunctions taken out to evict and prevent occupations from happening on campuses from Sheffield to London, Birmingham to Sussex show, demonstrate that occupations pose a great threat to management’s authority and their unquestioned neoliberal agenda which is so strong that they feel they cannot tolerate it.
In the run up to the National Demonstration for Free Education and beyond, students should be occupying their campuses, creating democratic spaces to educate each other about what’s going on in Higher Education and the alternatives we’re fighting for and disrupting the university to demand that that management come out in favour of free education and other measures to improve the rights, democracy and power of students and staff.
If you are in London tomorrow, then come to the teach-in at UCL: https://www.facebook.com/#!/events/1487254114890866/