Students taking action to support striking lecturers are being met with stringent measures from universities.

Students taking action to support striking lecturers are being met with stringent measures from universities hoping to suppress protesters.

From the establishment of student representative councils in 1880 (which later became today’s student unions), to the 2010 student protests over raised tuition fees, to the recent wave of rent strikes amid Covid-19, student activism has had a long and impactful history in the UK. 

In the last few months, though, student activists have been met with increasingly stringent measures from universities hoping to suppress protesters. University staff and members of the University and College Union (UCU) from some 58 UK universities have been on strike intermittently since 1 December 2021. Of those on strike, 37 are taking action against a scheme which will see some pensions cut by 36 per cent, and 54 over pay and working conditions. 

Staff pay has fallen by 20 per cent after 12 years of below inflation pay offers, while almost 90,000 academic and academic-related staff are employed on insecure contracts. The UCU is demanding a £2,500 pay rise for all staff, as well as action to tackle “unmanageable workloads, pay inequality and insecure contracts that blight the sector”. 

The majority of students support the action: research by the National Union of Students (NUS) from November found that 73 per cent of students supported the staff taking part in this campaign and strike action, and 69 per cent would be willing to take part in some sort of action to campaign for funded, accessible, lifelong and democratised education.

However, during a week-long occupation of five university buildings at University of Sheffield in response to the university’s decision to close the Archaeology department, security began to crack down on protestors. “We briefly left some of the rooms we’d been occupying, and security locked the doors, even though there was a bunch of [our] stuff in there,” Sky*, a student activist from the University of Sheffield, tells Huck. Sky, who has diabetes, needed to retrieve their bag as it contained vital medication, including their daily insulin. But security initially refused to allow Sky into the room without ID.

“We didn’t want to show our IDs because we believed that, although we were participating in a peaceful and legal protest, it would be used against us by the university,” Sky says. But security was persistent. “[I spent] about an hour trying to convince them to let me in without showing ID for my medication. I was telling them it was urgently important, that I had to have it that night.” According to Sky, it subsequently became apparent that staff had looked through their belongings in an effort to identify the students. 

The University of Sheffield has not responded to Huck’s request for comment.

According to Zac Larkham, an organiser with the national student activist group Red Square Movement, student protestors didn’t anticipate the “heavier-handed” approach universities would take. “During the UCU strikes in 2018, there were about 20 occupations, but there wasn’t the same level of resistance from universities as we’ve seen this time around,” says Zac. “This time, they’ve been much more willing to use the law with things like possession orders, but [university security staff] have also been physical with students and prevented people occupying buildings from using toilets.”

During an occupation in the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Hall on 4 December 2021, Lucy Nichols, a 22-year-old Arabic and Spanish student, ended up in A&E when she was injured in a clash with a university security guard. “We heard that one of the senior leadership members was in a meeting in Whitworth Hall, so we decided to stage a sit-in in the foyer,” Lucy tells Huck

Lucy recounts trying to distract one of the guards in the buildings so she could run past him and sit in the doorway of the meeting room. “When I tried to [do so], he grabbed me,” she says. “It was scary, because he was much bigger than me and he wasn’t letting go.” When the other protesters ran towards the doorway, the guard simultaneously pushed Lucy’s neck while pulling her shoulder. “Something went wrong and it really hurt,” she tells Huck.

“I saw a first aider at the Student Union and he said I ought to go to hospital because of the twisting of my neck,” says Lucy. “I felt pain down both sides of my neck and down into my shoulder… I was in shock and couldn’t stop crying.” At A&E, Lucy was told she had muscle strain in her neck. “I have since submitted a formal complaint and they’re investigating it,” she says. Despite UCU telling UoM that the guard’s actions were “unacceptable”, Lucy says she doesn’t “have any optimism that anything will come out of it”.

The University of Manchester has not responded to Huck’s request for comment. 

“I think universities are willing to do much more to win this [current UCU] dispute, which has been ongoing for four to five years,” says Zac of this punitive approach. “I think they want to crush this dispute and hamper union power for future strikes, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Another student, David Labi, an Arts and Politics MA student at Goldsmiths, was kicked off his course with no warning after withholding fees in protest. He was contesting the university’s decision to go ahead with restructuring plans that would see 46 job losses across the university.

At the start of the pandemic, Goldsmiths announced it would not renew the temporary contracts of over 400 of its employees. After a grades assessment boycott, an agreement was initially reached and many had their contracts renewed. However, when management announced a wave of redundancies as part of a “recovery programme”, it sparked renewed calls for strike action. 

“They clearly had no interest in meaningful dialogue or compromise with unions,” David says. “Students withholding fees seems to be the only way to force them to change their actions, which is why I decided to do it. I made the university aware of this, along with many others, but they never acknowledged our right to protest in this way, and just sent threatening letters left, right, and centre.”

Other students were given a deadline of 28 February 2022 to pay their tuition fees, and David and the other protesters had planned to set up a payment plan by then. But, with no warning, David was informed he’d been removed from his course. 

A spokesperson for Goldsmiths, University of London said: “As at other universities, students at Goldsmiths are obliged to pay their tuition fees if they wish to continue their studies. Payment of fees is essential so that we can continue to deliver our courses and services for students and pay our staff. 

“Goldsmiths has repeatedly invited Goldsmiths UCU and Goldsmiths UNISON to join the College at ACAS for shared talks with no pre-conditions on either side to help find a way forward. So far this offer has been rejected but we remain ready to meet.”

Understandably, David is upset. He tells Huck: “Universities are based on a community of students and teachers, and they cash in on a reputation of critical thought. But Goldsmiths wants absolute control and it can’t have it both ways.”

He continues: “University is often the most political time of most people’s lives, because they come together and share ideas. Universities belong to students, and most brands – which universities are – would kill to have a committed group of self-organising consumers. They need to realise that they’re destroying the very thing that makes that brand valuable.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady is calling on universities to stop engaging in this “vindictive behaviour”. “These so-called university leaders should instead ask themselves why students and staff are both so angry about the way the sector is being managed,” she says. “Students and staff deserve so much more. By standing together, we can win a better higher education sector.”

*Name changed to protect anonymity

Follow Ella Glover on Twitter

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.