Monday, 22 November 2010

Organise! Occupy! Fight for the right to learn!

Around 200 people - mostly new faces - demonstrated against the Browne Review (the New Labour-initiated agenda raising tuition fees to £9000 per year with a minimum of £6000) and the parts of the Comprehensive Spending Review attacking education (the ConDem coalition's trademark public service cuts regime billed at reducing the state deficit but much of which will actually cost money to implement) at Manchester Metropolitan University at midday today. With the demonstration seeming to wind up, the students' union officers and Socialist Workers' Party members monopolising the megaphones appeared to be ignoring the call to initiate an occupation which had been passed democratically by the meetings last week, and it was up to myself, anarchists and others to raise the slogan of occupying; even then, one SWP comrade attempted to divert the demonstration to a meeting to discuss the next direction of the campaign, in the students' union (incidentally, in roughly the opposite physical direction to that agreed at the meetings). Thankfully, the crowd enthusiastically took up the call to occupy, and roughly 150 people piled into the atrium of Geoffrey Manton - the main building of the humanities faculty, which is facing 80% cuts, the worst at MMU. Unfortunately, against my calls to stay and occupy the atrium where we would have had easy access to food and toilets, enough room for everyone to lie down come the night (since the plan had been to attempt to hold the occupation until Wednesday morning and then come out to join the Manchester-wide march as part of the national day of action to save education), and where we would be highly visible to everyone in the building and therefore hopefully grown our numbers significantly, a few comrades effectively dragged us into a small lecture theatre while most of the demonstrators were still coming into the building, which meant that most people couldn't see where we were going and we lost about two thirds of our numbers. In hindsight, perhaps a large lecture theatre would have been better than both the one we occupied and the atrium, since a few veterans of the 2008 occupation of the same building against the massacre in Gaza have since informed me that the atrium had been the initial site of that occupation and had been abandoned as unsuitable.

Over the next hour or so, we lost around another 20 to 30 people, in which time we discussed our demands and the contents of a press release, and made a flyer and petition (the latter basically quoting most of the text from the flyer, and mostly just intended as a talking point to help convince people to join or support the occupation). I'll reproduce the text of the flyer here (my own words), including the demands of the occupation:

In the aftermath of a protest today by 150 people, 50 people today have occupied a lecture theatre in the Geoffrey Manton building at Manchester Metropolitan University in protest against the cuts to education and the rise in tuition fees, mostly MMU students but also some members of staff, students at the University of Manchester, and members of the public in solidarity with our struggle.

We are demanding:

· The opening of all financial accounts, documents and internal memoranda relating to the functioning of the university to scrutiny by the Students’ Union and the public

· The scrapping of EQAL, management’s plan to increase profits by cutting staff and modules in the guise of ‘simplification’

· No job, department, course or module to be cut, including so-called ‘voluntary’ redundancies which are often achieved by threats

· The scrapping of the ‘Late Campaign’, which involves the disciplining of lecturers who are late for lectures usually as a result of higher workloads, and divides students from them by encouraging them to report lecturers for being late

· Free access for all to the building and facilities

· No academic, civil or legal repercussions for anyone involved in the protest and/or occupation

The fact that we have occupied a lecture theatre in the department facing the most severe cuts—80% funding cuts to the Humanities, Law and Social Sciences faculty.

But we aren’t just occupying to achieve demands. We also want to use the space as an organising and campaigning centre, and as a liberated space for discussion, debate and education.

Join us!

At 5, those of us remaining left the occupied lecture theatre to go to Q&A session with Vice Chancellor John Brooks (who took home a salary of £241k - almost 12 times the average UK income - in 2008/9* and according to Mark Harrison of the Commune £250k in 2009/10** as MMU's Vice Chancellor, not counting the perks that come with the job, the inevitable investment portfolio which usually comes with being wealthy almost by default, or his position on the North West Development Board***, no doubt among similar positions) about the cuts and how they will effect MMU, having prepared in advance a list of suggested questions (courtesy of James O'Leary from Communist Students), and initially intending to replenish the occupation force by occupying the larger basement lecture theatre afterwards with the people who were there, simply by not leaving.

Brooks began the session by re-making a speech he gave to a House of Commons committee on implementing the Browne Review, which he started by praising it for creating a 'free market environment' in education which would apparently provide students with more 'choice'; he later backtracked on this, saying "I agree with you, it's not a free market" (is there such a thing?) when I challenged him that marketised education, which would force students to 'choose' their university and course if any based not on quality, interest, level of challenge, possibilities of personal development and other personal criteria, but on what they believe they would be able to afford, doesn't provide students with more choice. His speech went on to passionately defend the importance of humanities education (history, geography and the social sciences), which seems somewhat at odds with the plans of the MMU management headed by him to implement part of the 40-60% cuts required by the Comprehensive Spending Review by slashing a whole 80% from the teaching budget in MMU's Humanities department.

Most of his 'answers' to the questions from the floor involved evading the subject, waffling and - as above - attempting to humour the asker that he 'agrees' with their concerns. One of the questions involved the presence of a Conservative Party MP on MMU's Board of Governors, and the prospects of removing him. Brooks claimed that because of the Tories having won 36% of the vote in May's General Election (and at least part of that having been solely a rejection of New Labour's having spent most of it's 13 years in government starting wars and cracking down on civil liberties), this would be somehow a denial of the 'democratic process'; others hit back that it's intensely undemocratic for a representative of a government which is cannibalising the education system to be a governor of a university, especially when his government's plans are opposed by the vast majority of the staff and students. Another question regarded his salary, which he avoided by saying that it was available online and most of us probably already knew it (which, to his credit, is true). Unfortunately, I never got a chance to come back on that saying that yes, we were aware that his salary was over £200,000, and that a 90% pay cut would still leave him with an approximately average income, and ask if he would be willing to take the 'sacrifice' of living on the sort of pay that most people do anyway if - as it would - it guaranteed the jobs of several other people who would otherwise be made redundant over 'lack of available funding'. He gave Alex Fountain, students' union Community officer, a verbal promise that the students' union's funding from the university would not be cut; the President Rob Croll, who was co-chairing the event with Education officer Liz Marsh, rightly demanded a written guarantee. Linda Holden, the Associate Secretary of the MMU branch of the public service trade union Unison, made a long speech attacking the Vice Chancellor's dishonesty, the EQAL programme, and his whitewashing of last year's job cuts, which recieved loud applause; he tried to deny that EQAL, which involves cutting the number of modules in a year from 6 at 20 credits each to 4 at 30 credits each and scrapping many of the currently-available modules (as well as cutting contact hours between students and lecturers), hurts the choices available to students, and ignored the observation that the proposals effectively render a large percentage of lecturers redundant, which was no doubt the main motive in constructing the schemes.

At 5:45, after Brooks had been complaining for about 15 minutes of 'tiredness' and with 15 minutes left of the allocated time for the session, Marsh and Croll more or less unilaterally decided to end the meeting, with several people still having unasked questions. I forcibly made the point that someone who makes decisions which effect our lives as closely as his should be accountable to his subjects and shouldn't have any choice about answering our questions, regardless of how 'tired' he is; Croll fobbed this concern off by saying we have to 'keep management on our side', as if they somehow are to begin with.

In the end, we didn't occupy the basement lecture theatre after all, deciding not to raise the issue with security in the room. Instead... we went to the bar.

One positive thing that came out of today's events was the validation of occupations as a democratic method of activism; it showed that only an occupation with the mass active participation and support of those effected by the issue in question can be sustained.

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***Mr C Hardy commenting on

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