Student Occupation: Day Seven

Vision’s liveblog of the occupation can be viewed here.

Students have gathered in the Exhibition Centre to protest against the government’s proposed education reforms, as part of a sit-in protest that began last Wednesday and is set to continue until the end of term.

The government’s reforms propose to cut education funding, replacing the created deficit with an increase in tuition fees. The future of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and the level of public funding for research has also been called into question.

A Parliamentary bill proposing the reforms is to go to a vote in the House of Commons on Thursday.

The “Great York Sit-In” follows similar protests at a large number of other institutions, including Edinburgh University and University College London. Students at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford have also staged occupations of university buildings.

On Wednesday, protestors Tara Jessop and Luke Capps told Vision that “we’re here because we condemn the proposed cuts on Further and Higher Education. We are calling on the University to support us in also condemning the education reforms.”

They went on to say that there is “great importance attached to the means by which we’re presenting our demands by creating an alternative space on campus, inviting people to join us, having a shared space to exchange ideas, foster dialogue and show the potential that university holds.”

The sit-in has involved students staying overnight in P/T/005a, the area of the Exhibition Centre usually reserved as a social space, and often used for group study. Around 30 students have been in regular attendance, with up to 20 staying overnight. Occupiers estimate that a further 20 students have shown interest by attending events.

Student Andy Cope explained how he is “most angry about the fact that different universities will charge different fees for studying different subjects if these proposals go through. I really value the fact that when I was applying to UCAS, price was not a factor in my decision of what I wanted to study and where, and that will be taken away… it’s a travesty.”

“I’m also really passionate about the funding getting cut to arts and humanities subjects, I think this country will suffer a cultural deficit if it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that studying arts and humanities and languages are valuable for reasonsthat go beyond the economic return to the subjects itself. I think it contributes to the overall education of the person and their general wellbeing.”

During the day, occupiers have persuaded students to sign a petition listing a number of demands of the University, and calling the government to respond to protests in a certain way. On Sunday, nearly 200 signatories were listed on the petition.

Protestors have also been keen to hold events aimed at outreach, with signs being hung from Central Hall, chalked messages written on walls and guest speakers attending the location of the sit-in. On Thursday and Friday, the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Students, Dr Jane Grenville, visited the occupation to speak to individual students, and on Friday the chair of York Stop the Cuts, Chris Fuller, addressed protestors.

Fuller, one of the organisers of the campaign to highlight the accused corporate tax evasion of Vodafone last month, described how he took part in an occupation of Heslington Hall in 1977, as part of a wider wave of student action. He described in some detail the measures taken in order to enter and remain in He’s Hall, as well as pledge his full support for the campaign.

When the occupation began on Wednesday evening, York Stop The Cuts’ Right To Work Campaign released a statement, addressing occupiers. It said: “We are sending this message of support and solidarity for your continuing occupations and all other activities you are undertaking.

“The government cuts agenda will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society […] Your actions are also an important part of the nationwide mass movement of resistance and promotion of alternative solutions to the economic crisis.”

In order to draw up a list of demands, protestors gathered in Physics on Wednesday night, discussing in great detail the wording and content of the petition that is to be later presented to the University. Though ideologically there are broad differences between protestors, they emphasise that on these issues they all have full consensus.

Protestor Stephen Walwyn, a PPE student, described the meetings, saying that “after a prolonged but interesting debate concerning our precise demands of the government and the university, we came up with a single side of A4 which summed up our aims and objectives perfectly.

“On Thursday morning, it was all about planning for the forthcoming few weeks: we’ve been organising bands to play here, talks by lecturers and Tim Ngwena [YUSU President] and all sorts of fun celebrations of education, which is why we’re all here.”

All decisions made by protestors are by full consensus, and can be blocked by any person in attendance at the meeting. A single block means that the proposal cannot be passed unless the voter reverses their decision. Those at meetings can also choose to abstain or “stand aside” from decisions. Meetings are held every evening at 6.15, and most mornings at 8.00.

First-year PPE student Roxanne Kovacs noted that “all our meetings use consensus decision making, we have no hierarchy. We think that’s the best way to do things, so people don’t get excluded as things could then be decided by the majority or those who speak the loudest.

“We have no specific people leading the group, but we rotate the responsibility of facilitating meetings. Having no leader puts everyone on an equal footing.”

YUSU President Tim Ngwena and Welfare Officer Laura Borisovaite have both paid visits to the march, with Ngwena offering to facilitate Thursday evening’s meeting. Though supporting the sit-in is not technically active policy, union officers are able to support the protest in their roles as individual officers. Academic Affairs Officer Ben Humphrys and Democracy & Services Officer Dan Walker have also informally visited protesting students.

Ngwena assisted students with printing and publicity, in particular with filming and uploading a video of protestors to YouTube, introducing themselves and their cause.

Support has also come from academic staff, with some pledging support by email, and others walking down to the protest to sit in on meetings or talks, though none were available for comment.

Students who have signed the petition but not actually taken part in many of the sit-in’s activities have also been prominent. Second-year Goodricke students Eppie Leishman and Emma Gardiner emphasised that “it’s good that this isn’t disrupting people’s lectures but still getting the point across. York like to do things in our own way, and [we] do it well.”

Societies and student groups have also become involved in the protest either formally or informally. On Friday, a room booking in P/T/005a by Pole Exercise Society continued on in the presence of an evening general meeting. The society and sitters-in mutually agreed that they were comfortable with the other’s presence.

On Wednesday evening, Womens’ Committee and the York Socialists will both hold meetings in the occupied space. Last Sunday, the open mic night that normally takes place in V Bar moved to the Exhibition Centre in support. Many protestors took part in the event.

Occupiers have also pooled skills in order to provide entertainment and activities throughout the day. These have included foreign language classes and yoga sessions, while Physics student Qaisar Siddiqui brought a lecture: “A Crash Introduction to Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity”.

All of these activities take place in the same space, opposite the porters’ desk in the Physics building.

Third year Politics student Sarah Dean described living in P/T/005a to Vision. She noted that she “hadn’t slept properly for five days! But it’s a really dynamic environment and at the same time really relaxed, because we’re all sharing food and sleeping space.

“We’ve all agreed on some house rules and so far we seem to be respecting them and each other and I would really encourage anyone to join us.”

The space serves as a bedroom and office for occupiers, as well as a study area.

Students currently plan to stay in the Physics building until the end of term, or until their demands are met. For many, Thursday’s Commons vote will be the deciding factor as to what future action will entail.

One thought on “Student Occupation: Day Seven

  1. As someone who benefited from the grants and free university education in the past I am appalled at how all three major parties have “talked the talk” of “education, education, education” while cutting down the education tree and replacing it with “money, money, money”. University education IS a public good. Should some courses be questioned (Dr. Who Studies etc)? Of course. But that doesn’t mean the whole edifice of our tertiary education system should be destroyed by the laws of economics and supply-side marketing.

    Keep up the protests!

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