December 06, 2011

Is the student occupation relevant to postgrads? – by Ruth

If you happen to have passed through the centre of campus during the last couple of weeks you'll have found it hard to miss Occupy Warwick. Student activists have pitched tents outside the Arts Centre as part of a protest against what they describe as the "marketisation of education".

occupy warwick

The occupiers largely exhibit the kind of bloody-minded youthful enthusiasm that is perhaps (stereo)typical of undergraduate protesters, but can their cause also resonate with PhD students? After all, we're not going to be effected by fee rises (right?) and many of us benefit from corporate investment in our research area. In fact, an injection of private money is just what many of our departments (and, by extension, we) need in this time of economic uncertainty.

For the sake of transparency, I'll admit my own participation in the protest at this juncture. I feel the aims and ideals of Occupy Warwick are deeply relevant to all members of the university body, as well as the wider public. As such, I've spent much of the last fortnight organising and publising occupation events during the day, and camping out at night.

Why would I put myself through this? After all, it's not as if it's terribly warm and sunny outside, and (sadly) I simply don't have the same energy that I did as an undergraduate activist. What keeps me going, and why do I care?

My primary reason for occupying arises from my concern for the future of the entire higher education sector in the United Kingdom. I believe that universities should first and foremost be centres of learning, where research and teaching is undertaken for the sake of public good rather than private profit. The tuition fee rise last year was just the start of a concerted attack upon the idea of a public university. The fee rise was accompanied by massive cuts, with the teaching budget for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences entirely scrapped. Now, the government is planning further changes that will see universities run more like businesses and less like - well, universities.

This is a terrible move because the logic of neo-liberalism hardly entails a better environment for research and teaching. An example of this can be found in the University of Warwick's existing system of internal markets, whereby departments are expected to spend a portion of their budgets upon hiring rooms. The intention, presumably, is to force departments to budget wisely and spend their money efficiently. The reality is an inefficient system where many PhD students (and, for that matter, administrative staff) are crammed into crowded offices (if they're lucky enough to get one at all) whilst other rooms lie permanently empty because departments can't "afford" them. Meanwhile many of the departments worst effected compete with one another for a decreasing amount of space.

Moroever, if research budgets increasingly rely upon private funding, we can expect research itself to increasingly reflect corporate interests. After all, why would you want to pour money into the university system if you didn't expect to see something in return? This has already been happening for years, and it's bound to get worse, with research increasingly driven by private prioritity instead of academic inspiration.

The stated objectives of Occupy Warwick broadly address these twinned issues: marketisation and cuts. The points are admittedly somewhat vague and almost hopelessly idealistic, but in being so they push for a discursive shift in how we understand the university system in the UK. Many will argue that the occupation's objectives are impossible to achieve, with sacrifices necessary from the University in order to maintain a high level of research and teaching. However, the whole point of the objectives is that they resist the logic of "the cuts" altogether, and ultimately call upon the University to oppose the government's ideological committment to austerity measures that hit the public sector and the poor, rather than those who caused the economic crisis in the first place.

A second powerful reason for the occupation is that it provides a visible symbol of dissent. The Warwick environment is centred around the spending of money, from the millions invested in shiny new buildings (to be used only by private companies and economically "useful" departments) to the overpriced food we're expected to buy from University outlets. Meanwhile academic, administrative and interpersonal hierarchies govern our everyday experiences. In contrast, Occupy Warwick reflects the wider "Occupy movement" in rejecting the necessity of both profit and leadership. The occupation is an environment in which food, bedding and decision-making are shared, and undergraduates, postgraduates and staff come together to debate and discuss an alternative approach to the University "experience".

This brings me neatly onto my final reason for occupying: the space has provided a fantastic base for interdisciplinary conversations during the past two weeks. As a friend of mine (currently working towards an MSC in Physics) recently noted, if we'd organised the occupation's thirty-plus talks and workshops as a formal conference we'd have reason to be extremely pleased with ourselves!

Occupy Warwick will be packing up its tents tomorrow. However, the campaign for a better university system will continue well into the new year. If you feel our message is relevant to you, why not get involved?

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Pravin Jeya

    I agree. PhD students should be interested in Occupy Warwick because they are, by definition, students – even if we may teach or organise events or research or mix with proper academics, we have student status and should therefore be concerned with our fellow students. Furthermore, cuts in higher education will affect us, maybe not during our PhD, but certainly afterwards when we try to looking for job.

    06 Dec 2011, 16:18

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