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27 March 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:14am

The story of Senate House reveals how out-of-touch our universities have become

A week in the life of protests at the University of London, where students are occupying and outsourced workers are preparing to strike.

By Anoosh Chakelian

As the most extensive university staff strikes to take place in the UK continue, students are occupying campus buildings across the country in solidarity.

In university towns and cities including Liverpool, Bristol, London, Sheffield, Nottingham, Glasgow and more, students are staging sit-in protests to back industrial action by staff against university management.

At Senate House, the University of London’s administrative centre where a significant portion of the building is under occupation by students, the strains are beginning to show.

Now a week into their occupation, the students are still waiting for the University of London’s senior management to meet and discuss their demands: to bring outsourced university workers – like cleaners, porters, gardeners and receptionists – in-house.

There are around 15 students there now, but the number varies as they come and go.

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They are supporting over 100 workers, who are going on strike on 25 and 26 April to demand becoming direct employees of the university, for better pay and working conditions.

In 2011, the university committed to maintain pay differentials between different types of workers, but this has stagnated and sub-contracted security officers are being paid about a quarter less than the level they were promised.

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain representing these outsourced workers has accused the University of London of “absolute contempt” towards them, and the shadow chancellor John McDonnell is supporting their cause:

The University of London is reviewing how it manages its facilities, and will consider options in May.

A spokesperson says the university has been in “daily face-to-face contact” with the protesters and given statements regarding their demands. While the students have had discussions with staff in person, they’re unsatisfied with the contact they’ve had – urging figures higher up the pecking order to visit them.

“We’ve been requesting a meeting with the management, and they’ve basically been sending us people who aren’t qualified to talk to us,” says Ada, one of the occupiers who is currently in Senate House.

“Generally, the management has been unresponsive and sent people lower down to come and talk – but nothing’s really come of it.”

They also feel their occupation has been met with hostility. Late at night on Monday 19 March, the first day of the occupation, a student was kept awake by shouts from outside the occupation through a megaphone of “If I’m not sleeping, you’re not sleeping” – the university denies this was a member of its management.

Two days later, on the afternoon of Wednesday 21 March, the students were “trapped” in The Chancellor’s Hall, a conference room they occupied from which to unfurl a banner and shout slogans out of the window. Two of the three doors were locked, so they entered through an emergency exit they say had been left open.

University of London handymen began drilling a lock to the other side of the fire door, keeping the students in the hall for about an hour. They caught the incident on film, and accused the authorities of false imprisonment and creating a fire hazard:

“It felt intimidating, and very unsafe” says one occupier, who asked not to be named. “Without any explanation, people came up and started to attach a nail to the other side of the door. This was incredibly unexpected. We were just trapped in here.”

“We weren’t asked to leave before nor were we given any warning,” says Bethany Byrne, another student occupier. “It was disturbing as we did not know how long we were going to be there for and we had no access to any toilets or water. Some of us did feel very claustrophobic.”

The students say they shouted through the door but received no response – and claim that they couldn’t see anyone who would let them out in case of an emergency.

A university spokesperson says the door they entered was locked to prevent them having access to the building’s tower for safety reasons, and states: “Security staff were always present and, in the event of an emergency, a safe means of escape would have been accessible for the protesters.”

But the lock was removed after about an hour. Beyond an initial routine fire safety workshop, the Fire Brigade has told neither the university authorities nor the students to stop anything that they’ve been doing during this protest, though each accuses the other of jeopardising fire safety.

There is open access to the occupation now during the daytime, and the students are still waiting to meet with the relevant authorities to discuss an end to outsourcing.

While many campus occupations over the years have fizzled out without consequence, student protests do tend to reflect the climate we live in. This particular action has the backing of the Labour Party and Green Party, and a backdrop of widespread disruption by academic staff striking against pension cuts across the country. (Supportive University of London academics have been visiting the Senate House occupiers to check up on them and bring them food.)

Such support has “really boosted morale and it makes the whole situation feel a lot easier”, says Ada. “We feel a lot more hopeful about it as a result of that; it doesn’t just feel like we’re just fighting this by ourselves… It feels like a really big movement’s coming together.”

This national context is a significant shift from eight years ago, when student protests and campus occupations against raising tuition fees did not have such weight behind them. As student pressure builds, and university staff and politicians’ attitudes harden, will the sector be forced to change?

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