“Across the country, major universities are following in the footsteps of the government, with the increasing use of authoritarian tactics against left-wing student organisers accelerating in the past year.”
By Fraser McGuire & Alec Severs
The Conservative Party has been waging a war on civil liberties since it came to power in 2010, and on May 2nd this year the Public Order Bill was granted Royal Assent – significantly reducing the ability of protestors to engage in any form of disruptive action without facing prison time.
The creeping authoritarianism being pushed by the Tories and British ruling class goes beyond public protests and street demonstrations, UK universities are increasingly acting as enforcers for the erosion of protest rights and political activism by targeting students. University senior leadership teams are resorting to the use of underhand tactics and repression against student organisers and protestors, despite simultaneously trying to build reputations as institutions concerned with ‘social responsibility’.
Legislation such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act and the very recent Public Order act are only working to hasten the process of universities becoming more hostile to progressive student movements and are creating precedents for the use of more extreme and forceful tactics.
Across the country, major universities are following in the footsteps of the government, with the increasing use of authoritarian tactics against left-wing student organisers accelerating in the past year. In November 2022, the University of Sheffield informed two student activists, via letter, that they had hired private investigators to investigate them for their alleged involvement in a peaceful occupation. The University spent around £40,000 on the firm, Intersol Global, despite the fact that both students could prove that they were not even in the city on the alleged dates.
Shockingly, several universities have also colluded with multinational corporations to effectively spy on students. In 2015 the University of Warwick was accused of working with the oil giant BP to spy on a student accessing the company’s archives (which are located within Warwick University) for his research. This included the student being constantly watched in person and on CCTV and even his social media being monitored, with BP and University employees sharing updates on his movements.
Just five months later, despite having an annual operating surplus of over £119 million, the University of Manchester employed the National Eviction Team to remove twenty student occupiers from another peaceful protest over the rising cost of living. This reactionary move ended up costing the university more than £38,000 – nearly £2,000 per student involved. The National Eviction Team (NET) is, despite the name, merely a private company that claims to be an expert in “protester, squatter and traveller removal” and engages in strategic planning with the police.
The NET is extremely controversial and heavy handed, in 2020 three off-duty bailiffs were arrested on assault charges against environmental protestors, with one bailiff being charged with grievous bodily harm after a victim was left with serious facial injuries. Despite more than 100 students taking part in the occupations at the university, 11 students were singled out as instigators and are currently facing unprecedented university disciplinary action. Most recently, student occupiers at the University of Brighton have been threatened with legal action for engaging in protests in opposition to planned staff redundancies.
The expansion of repressive tactics against student activists has been fueled by the changing culture within the higher education system. As the sector has become ever more marketised, university senior leadership teams prioritise profit over the well-being and health of staff and students, leading them to view student organisers and staff trade union members as threats to the commercial interests of the university system. During the early 2000s and 2010s, management teams in higher education still included many decision makers who valued academic freedom and student protest, but many of the new generation of senior managers have never known anything other than a marketised and commercialised university sector.
Despite the growing use of disciplinary and legal action against organisers, however, students are only becoming more determined to fight back against an unsustainable and alienating university system, the failures of which are galvanising students to take more drastic action to fight for change.
- Fraser McGuire and Alec Severs are Student Organisers at Manchester University. You can follow Fraser on Twitter here.
- If you support Labour Outlook’s work amplifying the voices of left movements and struggles in the UK and internationally, please consider becoming a supporter on Patreon.