On Wednesday, December 2, London-based student movement Liberate the University held a rally at Tavistock Square protesting the “transformation of universities into profit-making enterprises”. Roar spoke with attendees and organisers to get their two cents on the matter.
At Tavistock Square the night of December 2, the atmosphere was one of discontentment. Protesters amassed below university buildings and student halls, holding up signs reading “Dear UAL: We want an education, not just a brand”, “Students are the future, you are the past”, “#PauseOrPay”, and “I pay, you pay, we pay, they profit”. Speeches echoed from a makeshift podium as police officers, sent to enforce social distancing regulations, observed from a distance. Leo, a King’s student and committee member for Liberate the University, made the rally’s purpose clear: “We want our f*cking money back!
“This protest is more than just a successful rally. This is the beginning of a national
call to action. […] Let nobody tell you that change is not possible. Change is happening right now. But up until now, the world has forced change upon us. It is now time
for students to force change upon the world! You’ve been told that fee reimbursements
are impossible. You’ve been told that rent reimbursements are impossible. You’ve been
told that a bailout from the government is impossible. And yet only last week, Boris
Johnson told the country that an additional £16bn in military spending is not only possible, but essential. This should be enough to boil your blood”.
In a Facebook post preceding the event, Liberate the University leaders outlined their goals of a full higher education sector bailout, the immediate reimbursement of fees and rent for students, an end to the “hostile environment” policy on campuses as well as job and course cuts, and the formation of a student-staff Covid council. Leo continued in his speech: “In what other exchange would we be asked to pay so much for so much less? […] We must defend [universities] not on their profitability, but on their benefit to society as a whole. […] We must begin to take seriously the idea of an economic system that allows culture and education to exist for the enrichment of humanity and not for the enrichment of economic wealth”.
When asked what he’d say to King’s administration, Leo told Roar: “Listen very, very closely to our demands, because actually, it’s in your interest to seek a bailout from the government as well. The government needs to treat university as an essential service, and the fact that they’re not doing it is jeopardising the entire sector. We want our money back and we know a lot of students do as well- and the only way we’re going to get that without university closures is with a bailout from the government. Listen to Liberate the University”.
In a similar vein, an anonymous member of Liberate the University’s committee told Roar they believe King’s administration “needs to hear we’re really dissatisfied with the teaching we’ve been receiving. We know it’s a limitation of the situation, but at the same time, we received emails all summer saying there’d be a hybrid of in-person and non-in-person classes. Students paid full rent, moved to London when they absolutely did not have to for the education that would be delivered. [..] We’re really disappointed in the university for not being more transparent about how this year would go. [..] Students are suffering financially in a way we have never experienced before, and the universities owe it to our students to treat us better and give us our money back.”
In the demonstration’s opening speech, Liberate the University chair Isaac Hanson told the gathered crowd: “Universities should be run for staff and students, not big businesses and
senior management. […] We are standing here today in solidarity with activists student unions, and rent strikers from across the country who are doing exactly this in their cities. Because in the last ten years, our voices have been systematically ignored, our concerns sidelined, and our educations neglected.
“We need money now. In the long run, though, we want more than that. We want a real say in what goes on. Without students, there would be no university. We have the right to decide how it is run. Without academics, without cleaning staff and security staff, there would be no university. They demand the same right. […] We’re demanding a full bailout of the higher education sector. When we win, we win together!”
Roar spoke to several attendees, many of whom echoed the sentiments of the rally’s leaders. A group of anonymous Goldsmiths students told our reporters they had their own set of demands regarding sexual harassment on campus and in halls, and that they were campaigning for a 50% rent cut in accommodation where “cleaners didn’t have PPE at one point”. When asked how Goldsmiths is handling the Covid situation, they told Roar: “Awfully. [Goldsmiths] hid cases from students because they don’t want to ‘worry people’. If your students don’t know who has it, and if your staff doesn’t know who has it, you’re not going to stop the spread”.
A UCL student attending the protest had similar views, telling Roar: “From what I’ve seen UCL probably have the worst way of handling it. We have nothing in person, we had two lab sessions for our first term. We have enrichment session which are essentially useless. My personal tutor hasn’t contacted me once”. Another UCL student shared this view: “At the moment we have zero lab-based things so it’s almost impossible to learn anatomy, […], there are no dissections and exams are all based online and open-book, so I feel very little motivation to actually learn the amount of content I need to. […] At the end of my degree I’m not going to be well-placed enough to be a doctor. I’m not just getting a degree, it’s a life qualification.”
A King’s student with them added: “King’s is a little better in terms of in-person teaching depending on your course, but they’re really bad at the communication part, they don’t really tell you anything. You sort of have to figure everything out for yourself, which is bulls*it because you’re paying so much money”.
Similarly, an Art student from UAL told Roar: “I’m paying to use studio space and facilities I just don’t have access to. […] It kinda sucks paying this much in London rent to just be sitting in my student accommodation on Zoom all day”. Other UAL students spoke on how they are “not getting the things we are paying for. [The university] doesn’t really care about our voices, they put in no effort to hear us. How can we do our degrees when they’re not giving us what we need to do it. Where is our money going?” Other Art students from Goldsmiths and UAL felt a “complete loss of contact between students and staff”, also commenting on the lack of hybrid teaching and how “blended learning is to keep people paying their rent”.
As a SOAS student told Roar: “Students are being treated unfairly throughout the pandemic. Not only have students been treated pretty poorly [but] staff as well; there has been a lack of respect for everyone involved. […] People were being promised things that weren’t given”.
The protest was disbanded by police and organisers after an hour due to social distancing concerns and violations, but protesters expressed their happiness at being able to air their grievances. Goldsmiths and UAL students commented that “[the] ability to organise as a student body is just gone, we have no access to each other”. Queen Mary students echoed this, saying: “[The situation] is a bit of a shitshow, really. But it is fantastic to have some representation [of our demands]”.