It has now been announced that the Question Time debate with the Vice Chancellor has been postponed presumably at the behest of the sabbatical officer team who think letting students question him would threaten the Guild’s relationship with the university. This kind of action epitomises the fundamental flaw in the sabb’s approach to university management (nicknamed ‘the mafia’ by staff), they purport to think that most effective way to promote student interests is to act within the dictates of the most repressive university in the country which now even has to its credit a condemnation from Amnesty International for its attacks on freedom of speech and the right to protest. The purpose of a student union is to fight for the interests of its members, and university management are right now carrying out a range of massive attacks on students. Without recognising that the likes of Eastwood need to be fought against not collaborated with this student union can never perform its role.
According to one sabbatical officer it is better for the Guild not to ‘antagonise’ the university as this means it gets to have ‘a foot in the door’ of university decisions. What success has this approach had exactly? This university is the only one in the country to have a ban on protests, with Sheffield University attempting a similar one though quickly backed down after its student union demanded it immediately be dropped warning of significant action if it wasn’t. This university is the only one in the country that has reacted (and on multiple occasions) to student occupations by sending in security to violently break them up and assault students. This university is the only one in the country to be disciplining a student for participating in an occupation despite there being 21 different occupations of university campuses across the country last term with hundreds of individual students involved. The reason why this university behaves in such an extreme manner towards its students is that it knows the student union will not act to defend its members and will even take sides with the university.
The sabbs say they’re “disappointed” that students hadn’t told them that they did not intend to follow the “agreed route”. Let’s make a few things clear here, this protest was not organised by the Guild, it was organised by normal students from the university’s Defend Education campaign group who had been planning it since the beginning of term and a feeble A to B march to the clocktower to stand around listening to boring speeches was never on the cards. The protest was announced over a month ago, with the sabbs only agreeing to back it after Guild Council voted to mandate them to support the protest. This did not mandate them to agree a march route with the university (note not with students) and then attempt to impose that on the protesters. It also did not mandate them to refuse to back a key demand of the protest, dropping the disciplinary of Simon Furse, despite this being part of the Guild Council motion. These officers then dared to accuse protesters of “hijacking” the protest because they chanted in solidarity with Simon as the protest was supposed to. A Guild Council mandate to support a protest does not give the sabbs free reign to change its demands, impose a specific course of action and then claim later that the protest was hijacked because the protesters stuck to the original plan and disregarded them.
We are also disappointed that we felt we couldn’t fully work with our student union officers on this protest, that is a real shame, but considering events that have happened this year is that really such a surprise? How can we be expected to trust a Guild President with potentially sensitive information regarding a protest in a university determined to crack down on it when that same President has been exposed as identifying a student to be disciplined by the university for taking part in a protest. None of us particularly want to be the next Simon Furse stabbed in the back by his own union leader. We’ve learned not to trust. If the Guild wants to win that trust back their actions over the last few days have hardly helped, students don’t expect to be attacked by their own union officers for committing such grievous offences as walking down a path on an unapproved protest route chanting unapproved slogans.
In an unusually candid comment the sabbs even admit to us in their statement that “We will never enact positive change for students without working within the structures that exist at the University.” It is the very existing structures of this university that prevent enacting positive change for students. All of the little student gains we have in this university was won by fighting for it, not by asking the university nicely. For example students got seats on University Council because in 1968 hundreds of students occupied the Great Hall demanding they be given a say in how the university is run. Or in 1977 students won a significant reduction in their halls fees because the Guild organised students to refuse to pay on mass until the university cut them. We’re not necessarily saying that these actions need to be repeated, but the lesson to be learned is you win positive change for students by challenging university management and making clear to them that there will be consequences for mistreating its students. Our present university management will continue to act in this outrageous manner so long as the Guild doesn’t change its timid approach. Its failure to stand up to the university is not just weakness, it is irresponsible. The Guild has a responsibility to refuse to toe the line of a university which is completely off the spectrum in terms of the levels of repression and straight out violence it is prepared to use to silence its students.