Suspended Birmingham students: We have paid a heavy price for our peaceful student protest

Protest against Student Suspensions at the University of BirminghamThis article was originally published on Comment is Free here.

We have both just been suspended from the University of Birmingham for nine months because of our part in an occupation that took place last November.

This year the university has collectively had us arrested three times, taken out an injunction banning us from occupational protest for a year, put us through a stressful nine-month-long disciplinary process,suspended us for two months, reinstated us briefly just to suspend us again only one month away from graduation.

Another student, Hattie Craig, has been given a six-month suspended sentence, meaning that if she breaks any university regulation between now and when she graduates she will immediately be suspended for six months. Publicly stating opposition to the actions of the University of Birmingham could end up with her being suspended on the basis that she brought the university into disrepute.

The University of Birmingham is trying to hide behind the quasi-legal process that it uses to conduct disciplinary actions. We were denied access to legal representation, despite us submitting multiple requests. The hearings were not held to any of the same evidential standards that would be required in a court: decisions were made on the balance of probabilities, and the outcomes shielded from scrutiny because the university does not allow recordings or take full notes.

Higher education in the UK is changing fast. The distinctions between universities and the private sector are being eroded by the government and university managers. The University of Birmingham has played a central role in this ongoing marketisation. The vice-chancellor David Eastwood (paid £400,000 for the privilege) sat on the Browne review that led to £9,000 tuition fees and a market in higher education; and he has restructured the university to the demands of business. Successful and famous courses such as archaeologysociology and biological recordinghave been closed down when they don’t fit with a narrow business logic.

The university’s statement says that “robust action” has been taken to maintain the university’s “duty of care” to its students and staff. These are the students and staff who have resisted changes at the university, and have condemned the attacks on academic autonomy, workers’ rights and student protest. Staff unions at Birmingham have complained about heavy-handed management, leading them to successfully ballot for a strike in 2012. Last year a court found that Thelma Lovick, a prominent neuroscientist, was unfairly dismissed in a process described byProfessor David Nutt as both “cock-up and conspiracy”.

What is happening at Birmingham is an example of the kind of education system that is being created in this country. The idea that university should be a critical place where students and staff can and should interrogate and challenge the status quo is under attack. At the same time, more and more students and workers are realising that our interests are opposed to those of a neoliberal higher education system. This year saw the biggest wave of action that we have seen in universities since 2010. Staff at universities had a wave of national strikes, while students across the country went into occupation. Next year – with the main parties soon to announce their manifestos for the next election – the student movement is only going to get stronger.

The changes to higher education that the government implemented in 2010 were supposed to usher in a new era of student choice and student control. Though we never asked for them and actively resisted the changes, their supposed intention was to empower the student consumer. Instead, marketisation has created universities that are increasingly intolerant of dissent, will use the power of the police and the courts against their own students, put us through long stressful kangaroo courts, and will ultimately give out draconian sentences to try to scare others off from protesting. Just as the police had to violently beat students away from the fees vote in parliament, universities are using every means at their disposal to prevent students from interfering with their new logic of neoliberalism. We didn’t go away then, and we are not going to give up now.

PRESS RELEASE: UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM STUDENTS GIVEN 9 MONTH SUSPENSION FOR PEACEFUL PROTEST BY “KANGAROO COURT”

1426487_736568923039685_164713782_n-530x353FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT NUMBER: 07821842831, 07821731481

 Two students have been suspended from University of Birmingham for their involvement in an occupation in the autumn term. Simon Furse (22) and Kelly Rogers (22) have been suspended from their course until March 2015. Hattie Craig (21) was given a formal reprimand and a de facto ‘suspended sentence’ warning her of immediate suspension should she breach any university regulation. All were put through a panel which ended on 23rd June, but have had their outcomes withheld until today.

In an unprecedented move, University management intervened during the hearing and issued a recommendation to the disciplinary panel that one of the students, Simon Furse, be expelled. This would have been the first protest-related expulsion from a British university since 1974. The University recommended that Kelly Rogers be suspended for a full year, while Hattie Craig had a recommendation of 6 months.

The occupation was in relation to a set of ten demands, including that staff should be paid a living wage and the university should stop lobbying for fees to be increased. Since the occupation two of the demands have been achieved: the university have agreed to pay Living Wage for the next two years and have stopped fee waivers. The students were found guilty of a number of minor charges which in the past have warranted only a reprimand.

Simon Furse said “I have been suspended from the university despite the fact that the only evidence against me is a ten second video of me telling other protesters that they can go into a peaceful occupation. The protest was peaceful and lawful, but the university can just set up its own Kangaroo Court and do what it wants. University management have clearly decided that they don’t want any more protests against their policies, and have decided to victimise us to try and deter others from voicing dissent.”

Kelly Rogers said, “We protested peacefully to call for a better education for ourselves and future students, and for better working conditions for staff at the University. As a result, we have been punished for expressing our right to freedom of protest and freedom of speech. These rulings are vastly disproportionate and came as a massive shock”.

The 3-day hearing followed a 7 month disciplinary process, which we consider to have been politically motivated and lacking in impartiality. The disciplinary hearings themselves were marred by a failure to observe basic principles of procedural fairness. For example:

The students were denied the right to legal representation, despite the legal and factual complexity of the proceedings, the length of the hearings and the fact that their right to education is at stake

  • The University of Birmingham admitted to having identified the students from an internal ‘blacklist’ of around 30 student activists

  • Students were denied access to minutes of the disciplinary. When they requested them, they were told that they could only acquire them via a Subject Access Request “if they still existed” at the time. No verbatim minutes were taken at all, with the University citing “data protection” reasons.

  • Students were not given proper access to all of the allegations against them, with many of the allegations being raised in the course of narrative commentary and conjecture by University management.

 The students have noted each instance of unfairness and failure of due process. They are actively considering all avenues of appeal, including a challenge in the High Court.

Student loan sell-off abandoned: now we fight to abolish fees and debt

Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, has announced a U-turn on plans to sell the remainder of the higher education student loan book into private hands. This is a victory for students who have been fighting this threat over the past year with a campaign of protest and direct action. A combination of pressure from this campaign and changing financial assessments, as well as a likely desire to separate the Lib Dems from their Coalition partners in the run up to next year’s election, appears to have pushed Cable to move against the wishes of others in government who wanted to keep pursuing the sale as part of the wider agenda of privatisation and marketisation in education. Now we need to keep up the pressure for the government to make this announcement official, and go further to demand a public education system that serves society and is free and accessible to everyone.

NCAFC and other student groups and unions have been campaigning against the plans since they were revealed by leaked documents a year ago. NCAFC warned about the threat in 2011, when we fought David Willetts’ Higher Education White Paper, some of which was then shelved. The sell-off could have resulted in a retroactive change to repayments – forcing graduates to pay back more than they originally agreed in order to make the sale more attractive to private investors.

But we won’t stop here. We stand for free education – the abolition of all tuition fees and an amnesty on all existing student debt. This includes the pre-1998 loans that have already been privatised, with worrying results for the graduates paying them back. And we stand for decently-resourced education, made accessible to all – funded by taxing the rich and putting the wealth of the banks to democratic use, not by selling off public assets for a bit of quick cash.

From this defensive victory, it’s time to go on the offensive. Along with other student groups, we’ll be fighting for free, funded, public education with a campaign of protest and direct action over the coming months, including a national demonstration in London on Wednesday 19 November. Be part of that fight: build the campaign on your campus and in your community, and join the national movement.

BREAKING: Lib Dems ditch student loan sell-off

vcxA year ago, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts launched a campaign to stop the privatisation of the student loan book. The government planned to sell off all student debt accrued between 1998 and 2012 – estimated to be around £12bn.

Student debt is an unattractive investment for most companies, as there is so much of it that a large proportion will never be paid back.  Because of this, there are only two ways to make a profit: either the government has to effective subsidise the sale of the loans via a ‘synthetic hedge’, or repayment rates and conditions on the loans would have to rise. The latter option would have meant a vast and retroactive hike in tuition fees.

In September 2013, we wrote an open letter from the campaign to the Lib Dems on the eve of their party conference. We demanded a guarantee that they would not sell off the loan book.

When we received no such assurance, we occupied the constituency offices of numerous Lib Dem MPs – including a hilarious incident involving Vince Cable himself.

After a year of being slowly discredited, the policy has now been dropped, according to the Guardian. However, it is important not to be too triumphalist about this u-turn: it is clear that the Lib Dems are attempting to re-brand themselves ahead of the 2015 election, and we must not allow them to do so. Cable’s tone in dropping the policy focuses on its economic aspects – but then again, politicians never admit being scared of public pressure and protest.

You can read the full story here. 

Callout: march with the student bloc at the Tory Party conference

student bloc profile

FACEBOOK EVENT HERE.

From 28 September to 1 October the Tories will be in Birmingham for their Party Conference. TUC Midlands have organised a march and rally on the conference for the 28th. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) together with the Midlands groups – Defend Education Birmingham, Warwick ASN, and Leicester Defend Education – are calling for a student bloc on the demo. 

Since coming to power in 2010, the Tories have: 

  • Tripled tuition fees with no democratic mandate, making a university education in Britain the most expensive in Europe
  • Abolished Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and attacked access funds, cutting millions of working class students out of post-16 education; 
  • Ordered and celebrated brutal attacks on protests: kettling, horse charges, mass arrests, police violence, and the authorisation of rubber bullets and now water cannon. Undermined and attacked teachers and the public education system: freezing pay, scrapping pensions, casualising the workforce and selling out schools to creationists and big business;
  • Embarked on a chaotic experiment in turning higher education into a market, creating a tiered education system with elite institutions for rich students, and underfunded universities for the rest of us. They have taken teaching quality, the needs of society, working conditions and the right to access education as collateral damage;
  • Fostered a system in which universities can call on police brutality to repress students, like those involved in Defend Education Birmingham, where the university has collaborated with the police to brand peaceful protests as domestic extremists and arbitrarily arrest them, and has suspended and disciplined students and attacked the right to protest;
  • Drowned us in debt. They are currently attempting to privatise the Student Loan book, selling our loans to private holders at low cost and leaving students facing unsurmountable debt, potentially insecure repayment conditions, and a future determined by profit rather than by concern for society.

The men who masterminded this dirty work over the last four years – Michael Gove and David Willetts – have been sacked or demoted in the Cabinet reshuffle. But there is no sign of a policy change in education. Further neo-liberalisation is presented as the only way forward.

We are calling on students from all over the country to march with us on 28 September in Birmingham to oppose the Tory Government. 

We want the fight for education to be part of a broader fight by working class people in Britain.

We want to stop its assault on education and demand that it be accessible to all free of charge; that educational institutions be democratically run by those who work and study within them; and that this be publicly funded with no strings attached.

New universities minister: what does this mean for the student movement?

tumblr_inline_n8urhxcyNZ1s7t44sBY SHELLY ASQUITH, President of University of the Arts London. Original post here.

Unlike Willetts, Greg Clark has a working class background: educated in a comprehensive school and the son of a shop assistant. Don’t let that fool you though, the new Minister for Universities is just as much of an elitist Tory as his predecessor. Here’s where he stands on some of the key issues:

He voted for higher tuition fees, obviously. He voted to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance and is in favour of free schools and academies. So there’s nothing rebellious about him on the headline education reforms.

Tax the rich? When it comes to taxation, he’s in favour of raising VAT which hits ordinary people. Meanwhile he also doesn’t think contributions on earnings over £150,000 should be increased. Clark is against a mansion tax, against a bankers’ bonus tax and in favour of a lower rate of corporation tax.
He also voted to cut council tax benefit, which millions of students rely on.

Welfare
If you find yourself in need of a safety net, Clark doesn’t think your welfare payments should rise with the cost of living – keeping the most vulnerable in poverty.

International students
Clark was in favour of curbing the rights of asylum seekers and supports the Government’s Immigration Bill which will charge international students for accessing the NHS.

New deal for work? No thanks – Clark has voted against proposals for Government to create jobs for young people who have been long-term unemployed.

Housing
Perhaps failing to recognise the urgency of the housing crisis, and the fact that fewer than half as many houses are being built than are in demand, Clark has been a firm defender of the Localism Bill, which scrapped regional home-building targets.
Clark is also a proponent of the social-cleansing bedroom tax, which penalises the poorest tenant’s with second bedrooms, despite whether a relative has passed away or left for study.

Clark favour’s the lobbying bill, which aims to restrict campaigning by charities during elections (that would include students’ unions lobbying over the NUS’s newly adopted free education policy). NUS Scotland seems to have a solution to that barrier though: just break the law.

To gage who Clark’s allies are in the sector, just look at who’s offered him a warm welcome this week: University Alliance and Higher Education Academy which supported the new fees system and has even argued for a removal of the £9k cap. Given the apparent support from these organisations which are effectively clubs of Vice Chancellors, it’s probably safe to say Clark’s in favour of overblown pay for senior managers.

The fight goes on.

PRESS RELEASE: national demonstration for free education called

Contact: 07964791663

A coalition of student groups and campaigns from across the country have come together to call a national demonstration in the autumn term.

The demonstration will take place under the banner of ‘Free Education: No fees. No cuts. No debt’. It will take place on Wednesday 19th November in central London.

The move marks an escalation of opposition to the government’s programme of fees and privatisation in education and will provide a spark for further action. Students are planning a wave of occupations and localised direct action alongside the demonstration in autumn term, and are also mobilising for a trade union demonstration on Saturday October 18th.

Beth Redmond, from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, said “Four years on from the election of the Coalition, it is clear that fees have failed. Whole areas of higher and further education are now off limits to anyone without rich parents, and education workers are being squeezed, sacked and outsourced. We are calling this demonstration to take the fight to the government and to demand a public education system that serves society and is free and accessible to everyone.”

Kirsty Haigh, NUS Scotland Vice President Community, said: “This year will see a major fightback against privatisation and attacks on living standards, the biggest since 2010-11. Millions of workers will be on strike this summer and into the autumn, and students will be a part of that fight. With a general election in May, we will be putting free education onto the political agenda, not by softening our position but by making our ideas impossible to ignore.”

Aaron Kiely, from the Student Assembly Against Austerity, said: “The Coalition’s austerity agenda sees more value in dropping bombs than building homes – more value in big business than the NHS. When the Tories say there is not enough money for free education, they are lying. The trebling and trebling again of tuition fees has not only kicked away the ladder of opportunity – it’s also losing the government billions of pounds. Germany has proved only this year that there is an alternative – if they can scrap tuition fees and so can our government.”

Malia Bouattia, NUS Black Students Officer, said “Black students have been hit hard by the government’s tripling of tuition fees and the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance; and prospects for young Black people in Britain look bleak with nearly 1 in 2 unemployed. We will be marching for a clear alternative to austerity politics, against the vicious racist scapegoating agenda of the government, and we proudly support immigrants and international students who make a vast contribution to our education and wider society.

Clifford Fleming, Co-Chair of the Young Greens, said “We are sick of being marginalised by Westminster. With threats to cut young people’s benefits from both the Conservatives and the Labour Party, it’s time for a full-scale fight-back. Years of tuition fees have lumbered millions with debt, and the system isn’t working. We need an open, accessible, free education system that supports those from all backgrounds.”

Notes:
1. The National Union of Students (NUS) voted to support free education at all levels, funded by taxation of the rich, at its conference in April.
2. The Coalition of groups involved in calling the demonstration includes the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), the Student Assembly Against Austerity (the student wing of the People’s Assembly) and the Young Greens.
3. The facebook event for the demonstration is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1438512509748733/

National open meeting calls for action to fight for free education

ncafcdemoAfter our success in turning NUS official policy to favour fighting for free education on the basis of taxing the rich and seizing the banks, and with a General Election approaching, now is the time to launch an offensive in the struggle for free education.On 15 June, activists from different campaigning groups around the country came together at the student union of the University of the Arts to organise that offensive.

Over the course of the day, we discussed formulating a coherent strategy for free education in the next twelve months, building local groups and a national campaign which talks about the broader ideological content of ‘free education’ – beyond simply abolishing fees. There will be more information posted about what came out of these sessions in the days to come.

After a day of discussions ranging from local to national issues, we voted on action proposals. The following proposals were agreed by the meeting:

  • Pass free education policy through as many student unions as possible
  • Prepare to call a national demonstration in term 1
    • Coordinated occupations in the same city as the demo at significant locations – well-publicised once it happens (Twitter, papers, Facebook) – on day of any demo, towards the end of the demo
    • Form a “national demo committee” – a working group to build for a national demo next term – made up of volunteers from campaign groups/liberation groups/NUS full-time-officers who support free education. The remit of the working group is to call and organise logistics for the demo, and to decide on a set of central slogans.

N.B. The first meeting of the committee will be in London on 29 June. We want lots of different organisations involved, including campus activist groups, so please contact [email protected] if you’re interested in sending a volunteer to join the working group.

  • Call for a day of action on which or from which people go into occupation all over the country. This day should be in the last week of October. The occupations should be under the label of “Free Education” but can incorporate local demands.
  • Disseminate the idea of women, people with complex gender identities including woman, and non-binary people-only direct actions to local groups
  • Organise around the national set of demands agreed at the January Birmingham meeting. Any local group involved to do an action on their campus based on one of the demands. The demands will then tie together all of these individual actions to create a bigger impact than if isolated.
  • University campus activist groups should do outreach to the local schools, colleges and 6th forms to try and engage younger people before they get to university. The university campus groups should help develop and create local activist groups within schools, colleges and sixth forms – specifically around the idea of free education
  • Everyone should produce campaign materials (leaflets/stickers/broadsheets)
  • Promotional film about free education. Short, 3Cosas-style, with lots of different people speaking from everywhere, which shows freshers that fighting for free education is: A) a rational decision and B) fun and worthwhile.
  • Put together a paper on a strategy for free education to put to and voted on at the next NUS NEC
    • This to be proposed collectively by the pro-free education left-wing NUS NEC members
    • Open letter of officers in NUS and student unions to pressure the leadership to adhere to key elements of our own paper/strategy
  • To ask NUS to call a national free education strategy meeting during the summer as part of its summer training programme, but which is open to activists/non-sabbs to attend.

Support the 3 Cosas/IWGB strike fund!

20130605-d049Outsourced workers at University of London, employed by Cofely (cleaning and maintenance services) and Aramark (catering) are on strike 6-12 June as part of their fight against job losses at the Garden Halls, student halls of residence near Kings Cross where many of the UoL IWGB branch’s members work.

The halls are being closed for refurbishment and the union is demanding redeployment for all the workers. This is an extremely important fight in terms of defending not only these workers’ livelihoods but the base of organisation and struggle the IWGB and its 3 Cosas campaign have built up, inspiring the wider labour movement. The workers voted 100 percent in favour of strike action; their action is solid and looks like it is starting to shift management.

These workers are low paid and strike funds were crucial to their previous victorious struggles. The labour movement needs to mobilise the maximum solidarity, starting with donations to the IWGB strike fund. You can donate at:

iwgb.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/please-contribute-to-our-garden-halls-strike-fund

You can also donate at Cooperative Bank / Industrial Workers of Great Britain / account number 65564112 / sorting code 089299

For more information about the dispute see the IWGB website.

Press release: Five days of strike action over job losses at the University of London Garden Halls

garden_halls_posterVia the Independent Workers of Great Britain – original release here.

03/06/2014

Contact: Contact: Jasonmoyer-lee@iwgb.org.uk or 07922810798

Twitter: @3CosasCampaign

FIVE DAYS OF STRIKE ACTION OVER JOB LOSSES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LONDON GARDEN HALLS

Members of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) at the University of London have voted 100% in favour of strike action over the loss of more than 80 jobs at the Garden Halls, student halls of residence near King’s Cross.

The IWGB has served notice of five days of industrial action against the two main outsourcing companies at the University – Cofely which runs cleaning, portering, security, and maintenance services, and Aramark which employs catering staff. The strike will begin on Friday 6 June and will continue from Monday 9 June to Thursday 12 June.

The University is set to refurbish its halls from the end of June. The process will last around two years and current workers are at risk of redundancy.

Many of workers under threat of redundancy have been the most active in the 3 Cosas Campaignfor Sick Pay, Holidays and Pensions. The campaign recently won improved sick pay and holiday pay after a high-profile strike in November 2013.

The IWGB is demanding:

•           a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies

•           full and meaningful consultation with the IWGB

•           the same wage levels, terms and conditions, and length of service for any workers transferred to contracts outside the UoL

The IWGB is building a strike fund to compensate workers taking strike action and is calling on support and solidarity from other trade unions, students’ unions and the wider labour movement.

In the run-up to the strike, student activists at the University of London Union (ULU) have occupied Cofely’s head offices at Angel in Islington, London, and the company’s prestigious contract providing building services at the Shard near London Bridge.

Sonia Chura, a Garden Halls (Cofely) worker and Vice-Chairof the University of London branch of the IWGB said:

“The workers who have been most active in the 3 Cosas Campaign are on the verge of losing their jobs. This is the fault of Cofely and the University of London who have consistently refused to negotiate with us or to accommodate the workers. We’re striking in order to continue working. We have been serving the University for many years and this is the thanks we get – being thrown out on the street.”

END

Contact: Jasonmoyer-lee@iwgb.org.uk or 07922810798

NOTES FOR EDITORS

Full details of the 3 Cosas Campaign can be found on the campaign website:http://3cosascampaign.wordpress.com/about/

Details of student solidarity actions, including against Cofely’s contract at The Shard, can be found on the IWGB UoL branch website:http://iwgb.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/workers-and-students-occupy-cofely-hq-in-the-shard/