Interview with David Cave, Loughborough People and Planet.
What’s going on at Loughborough?
I’m a member of Loughborough People and Planet. We’ve been campaigning in Loughborough for the last 3 years- on environmental justice, on workers’ rights and on migrants’ rights. We’ve just released a letter to the Office for Students calling on them to investigate the University for its suppression of freedom of speech and the right to protest.
We’re asking the Office for Students to treat Loughborough University as a case study for this kind of behaviour that we think might be happening at other universities as well. The letter, which we co-signed with other student-staff groups, details three years’ worth of incidents where the university has tried to curtail freedom of speech on campus and stifle our campaigns. They’ve done this through threats, disciplinaries, trying to ignore us.
Last year they fined us £430 for the clean up of some chalk messages, excluded a student for almost two months (with no investigation or process) for setting off a smoke flare in a demonstration on campus which didn’t affect any staff or students. People have had their studies threatened. We were made to identify ourselves and show our student IDs to security when handing out normal, inoffensive campaign leaflets- or face disciplinary action. A warden had to leave their job and home because they were supporting protesters online.
So the university has gone to some extreme measures to try and stop politics on campus, and that’s what we’re asking the Office for Students to investigate.
Why do you think it’s so important that we defend the right to protest?
It’s really important that we don’t become domesticated by our universities. Neoliberalism tells us to keep our heads down, to get on with our own jobs, not to question things… We very much need to fight against that! We win so much through dynamic, robust protests, and if we gave up that right then we wouldn’t be able to fight for our own interests as strongly. Marketisation means our universities aren’t run in staff or students’ interests, so we have to fight for those interests- and we need to be able to do that with all the means that are available to us!
I think the way we have protested at Loughborough is really effective. We’ve used a direct-action approach which makes it harder for university management to dismiss us behind closed doors. If we didn’t use these methods of protest I don’t think we would be as successful.
Do you see this as being part of a national pattern? What do you think is driving this crackdown on the right to protest? Is it marketisation?
I definitely see this as being part of a national pattern. Lots of the things that were detailed in the letter will be familiar to political organisers at other universities in the UK. This is why we’re asking the Office for Students to consider Loughborough as a case study and see how the problem applies more widely across the country.
I definitely see this being driven by marketisation. As universities become more privatised and corporate they resemble more and more a class structure. The way they manage their finances is always to maximise the income they get in while minimising the costs, and then senior management take a chunk of the income. The rest is reinvested back into the university to make more income next year, rather than being used for staff or students. I think it’s a case of those in power wanting to defend their class interests and they have a lot of power to be able to do that. They aren’t afraid to use their power to stop student or staff protests or organising.
After the general election, vice chancellors across the country are going to feel emboldened, and that’s going to drive a further crackdown on protests. The new Tory government promises a fight for our right to protest, as well as a fight against austerity.
How can activists and activist groups fight back? What should NUS and student unions be doing?
From my experience of the last three years, I think really injecting staff and students’ class interests into people’s consciousness is important. I think we really need to break down this idea that the university is a neutral, benevolent institution, and that the knowledge production that it provides is just for the common good. We need to show people the different interests that students and staff have to management and the imbalance of power that we have. I think there’s a tendency in activist groups to try to get along with management in order to be able to negotiate with them. That’s something I’ve done before, and it needs to stop. I think we need to be completely honest and say we have completely different interests and we’re going to do everything we can to fight for those interests.
In terms of effective tactics, we need more robust, dynamic direct action that really hurts university management’s interests. We need to get student unions on board, with the same attitude towards management as us: we’re not just sitting around a table with them, we’re fighting for interests as students. Student unions need to be incorruptible defenders of students’ interests and they need to speak passionately about them.
Finally, the key thing is solidarity across different campaigns between staff and students. We need unbreakable solidarity in the next few years and we should try and think about how we can build that on our campuses.
At the moment, a national student consciousness feels very far away. I think we really struggle with the effect that neoliberalism has on us, in making us feel like isolated individuals. Undoing that is a long and difficult process. I think another thing that is needed nationally is to get over some of the sectarian internal conflicts that we have. We need more action from groups nationally. Sometimes there can be a lot of talking without action – with how difficult the task is, we really need to do something and organise.