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23 November 2010

Why we’re occupying

Students at SOAS explain why they have taken over one of the college's buildings.

By James Meadway

Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in central London yesterday occupied one of the main college buildings, protesting against proposed cuts to higher education funding and tuition fee increases. The previous Thursday had seen the biggest Students’ Union general meeting for many years vote to support occupation after a tense debate.

SOAS’ 4,000 students have a reputation for radicalism in international issues, occupying college buildings over the Israeli invasion of Gaza in early 2009 and running anti-deportation campaigns over a number of years. But with smaller, specialist colleges like SOAS threatened with the removal of all funding for teaching, a domestic political crisis was forced centre-stage.

However, this is not just a case of SOAS being SOAS. We were joined shortly after by occupations in UWE, Bristol, and Manchester Metropolitan, and universities up and down the country will participate in a National Day of Action Against Fees and Cuts tomorrow. SOAS UCU and Unison have called on all members to show their support for the occupation, and we are holding a joint meeting tonight to coordinate anti-cuts action.

Opposition to the Browne proposals among staff and students is overwhelming. Both the crudity of the attack, trashing arts and humanities in the name of alleged economic irrelevance, and its sheer scale are compelling a rare unity of opinion. We also fear that lifting the cap on tuition fees will narrow university participation at the time when it should be expanding. Britain has plummeted down OECD league tables of university participation in recent years, yet Britain’s long term prosperity requires a highly-educated workforce. This is not to mention the fact — more pertinent than ever given the current economic situation — that investment in higher education is highly productive from the government’s point of view. Figures released under the last government suggest that every £1 invested in education stimulates economic activity worth £2.60, of which half goes back to the government through higher tax intake.

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It was the 50,000 or more who protested on 10 November that gave a focus to that opinion, blowing open previous considerations. The calculation by both police and (we must assume) government that student discontent could be safely contained had been rudely challenged. The Coalition now faces an unexpected enemy — a movement, on a very wide scale, of radicalised students.

The traditional leadership of NUS, too, are visibly rattled. Having been overwhelmed by the response to their own call for action, Aaron Porter wasted no time in denouncing the many thousands of protestors at the Tories’ Millbank headquarters as “despicable”. Harsh words for his own constituents revealed the sudden weakness of his position.

For well over a decade, a broad majority in support of New Labour’s various reforms to universities dominated official student politics. A succession of more-or-less Blairite Presidents presented the case for New Labour: that fees were unavoidable; that funding per student had been maintained; and that universities had expanded. For as long as this seemed plausible, their grip could be maintained.

Browne and the Spending Review shattered that happy settlement — and with it, the prospect that student militancy could be taken easily down Blairite tramlines. From school students to grizzled postgraduates, the imminent prospect of a tripling of fees, a lifetime of debt, and diminishing employment prospects concentrated the mind. The protest was an obvious focus; Tory HQ an obvious target.

Individual colleges were shaken by the day. Arguments across SOAS centred on the best course of action after the demonstration. Attempts to condemn Millbank protestors were soundly defeated in the same Union meeting. Offers of support for Aaron Porter were laughed out of court.

The occupation proposed a different logic. That by leaning on our management, we could best lean on the government. That a succession of college occupations could become a political crisis. And that SOAS would have to act as an example.

We are refusing to leave until Paul Webley, SOAS President, takes concrete action against the cuts and fee increases. Only if students, staff and university management work together will we have a chance of defeating the government’s plans.

We slept overnight in the Brunei Gallery, in which we have also set up a free library and a prayer room. Food and water was donated by supporters and friends, and the SOAS World Music Choir last night performed a free concert inside the occupation to express their support. The occupation has received messages of support from across the UK and internationally from students in Turkey, Portugal and Canada.

Whatever the final outcome, the pretence that this Coalition, lashed together in backroom deals can claim to represent the national interest is over. As the student protestors have been saying: this is only the beginning.