Looking Back on a Year of Protests Part 2

23.02.12 - Huw Diprose
Protesters who travelled on coaches from Aberystwyth to London for the 'March for the Alternative' in 2011 against the Westminster coalition cuts have taken part in a written exchange with Planet's associate editor. They give their recollections of the demonstration as a starting point for a deeper examination of the contested nature of solidarity against austerity measures in Wales, Britain, Europe and the rest of the world.
In the second of these exchanges, Huw Diprose looks back on the student occupation of Aberystwyth University during 2011, and the contribution of student protest to the movement against Westminster coalition cuts.

Emily Trahair: What were the demands of the occupying students?

Huw Diprose: Initially we had three major demands which we put to the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Student and Staff Services when she came down to one of the first meetings in the occupied lecture hall. The first was a clear no victimisation clause: we wanted it clearly stated in writing that no current student would lose their degree or have marks affected by taking part in the protests; and, this was absolutely key, that no member of staff risk losing their jobs or having their career prospects damaged because of their involvement (this also applied to service staff); and that potential students who protested would not lose their application. The second demand was for transparency: we wanted to see internal documents, especially those relating to planning and how to address the severe accommodation shortage in Aberystwyth, and specifically with regard to what was going to be cut within the university; we wanted these documents to be released to the general public and put up on the web. Thirdly we wanted a recognition from the governing body of the university that it is not only there to manage the institution, but that it's actually a political entity in itself, we wanted them to come out nationally in public and take an ideological stance that the cuts are damaging to the university, hopefully to inspire other universities to do likewise.

ET: You are also involved in Aberystwyth Free University, a project connected to Aberystwyth Students Against the Cuts, tell us a bit about this.

HD: Last year during the first occupation, a few members of the International Politics staff came down to the occupied lecture hall and gave a free seminar which looked critically at the nature of higher education today, and what should be the purpose of higher education. This seminar and what later developed out of it has been some of the best education I have had at university. It was free from hierarchical boundaries, we were sitting there as undergraduates with eminent professors and lecturers who I had studied under for a long time, and postgraduate students. It was outside the structures of mainstream education, and introduced perspectives I hadn't encountered before. The Free University was an extension of this seminar, and started when university staff spent some of their time during a strike debating higher education issues with us in the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth (a venue outside the campus). This was an open space where staff, students and members of the public came together to explore how we can act politically, both within the university and beyond.
Some of the most eye-opening discussions at the Free University event related to the governance structure of the university. In particular we discussed the lack of consultation with lecturers. There was a recurring comment that important decisions always seemed to have been made at a prior meeting further up the management chain (a chain which starts at departmental level and works its way up to the Deans, the senior management and the Welsh Government) so that much had already been decided before those actually teaching got a chance to air their views. From older participants we heard about the rise of modularisation. They suggested that for all the ‘student choice’ this purports to provide, it creates a disincentive for departments to work with each other, this has been responsible for killing off innovative courses such as Women’s Studies which drew upon different perspectives from many departments. We then considered how university education could be structured differently.
Later on that day, union representatives and Ceredigion's AM, Elin Jones, came along and we then expanded our discussion to encompass the strikes over pensions, Assembly Government policy on Higher Education and the place of the university in the wider community.

Free University

ET: The Aberystwyth Students Against the Cuts group contains students from Wales, England and beyond, who are protesting against changes that will affect students in different ways according to their nationality. For example, the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance will affect English students not Welsh students, the rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year likewise, and international students could be affected by changes to the student visa system. There is also an argument that research and teaching about Wales and in Welsh will be threatened as there could be financial pressure on Welsh universities to focus on recruiting non-Welsh students. How does the group accommodate within their campaign priorities the different funding scenarios borne of these national differences? For you, Huw, as a student from England, how do you negotiate this in the way you shape your solidarity with fellow students?

HD: I think for a start we work from a basis of complete solidarity with all students, these differences between Welsh and English students can largely be exacerbated by some of the Guild structures at the university where different sections of the student body have different representatives. For ASAC there is no such delineation. We represent a united student body – we are international students, Welsh students and English students. I think it would be easy for us to become nothing more than a cluster of partisan groups fighting for Welsh students and not English students, EU students but not non-EU students and so on – this would be a disaster. The movement has little to do with self-interest; most of us are at least halfway through our degrees, our fees are paid at current rates. Therefore, we are pursuing something much bigger, the kind of education that would compliment the kind of society we would like to emerge into. In this way, the negotiation of priorities becomes less and less about which group will experience a rise in fees and so on, and more about what kind of society we want to see.
ASAC’s views aren’t homogenous, they are an aggregation of many different backgrounds and political perspectives. For instance we have a few highly active Welsh speaking members and we’ve been working hard to encourage more to join. This is very important as incomers like myself can miss key issues that would never have occurred to me as I grew up outside of Wales. It’s a critical time for Welsh institutions and those who want to continue studying in the medium of Welsh so these views are immensely important, but are very much a part of the larger struggle for greater student control, rather than being separate.

ET: There has arguably been insufficient critique of the Welsh Government’s priorities for Higher Education, due to the relative weakness of the Welsh media, and the almost exclusive focus in the London press on how Westminster policies will affect English students. What message do you have for the Welsh Government?

HD: My message would be to take great consideration over the budgetary promises you have made to provide funding for Welsh students, and consider carefully the possible consequences. I fear the funding guarantees made just before the Assembly election could be doomed to failure, and could have emerged out of badly thought out pre-election politicking. This is saddening, not only imagining the disappointment of Welsh students and universities and the impact upon them, but also because what it really represents is a refusal to fight. There’s already a constriction of Higher Education opportunities occurring in Wales, and the proposed funding cut-backs, department closures and campus mergers will worsen the situation considerably.
I think that it’s really important to consider that already there are subjects that can't be studied in Wales, veterinary science for example. Students wanting to study to be a vet, or other subjects which are soon to be lost, will have to move further to gain access to these courses (with all the costs involved), or even move out of Wales. This will have a serious impact on Wales as a whole. What hope is there then for the Welsh Government measures to strengthen the Welsh language and culture if we are pushing young people to the other side of the border? And what is the chance they will return with the expertise they have gained elsewhere?
Most of all, I fear that questions such as these are recognised by the Welsh Government, but that they are deferring the debate lest it provoke too much bad blood with Westminster. This is how central governments come to grow bolder as they see only measured resistance. The Welsh Government needs to speak up loudly because Welsh interests very much lie in localised, well-funded and good quality higher education. I wonder if they have really taken this on board.

ET: It seems to me that there are two aspects to the student protests. One is a contribution to the fight to conserve the social democracy that has been built up in Britain over the last 100 years (state investment in education and public sector pensions for example), thereby upholding a belief that the state can shelter the individual from the instability of the market, while remaining within the capitalist system. The other aspect – manifested in projects such as the Aberystwyth Free University – is a more radical attempt to explore forms of education that challenge how capitalism shapes and commodifies our lives, and to create an alternative template for democratic participation that goes beyond that provided by the state through elections. Would you agree that the student movement contains these two elements? And would you agree with Žižek, who argues that as capitalism is now in a state of permanent emergency, it is naive for protesters to think it is still possible to conserve a strong public sector within a capitalist framework; and that the only option is to ‘take steps into the abyss’ and improvise an alternative beyond capitalism?

HD: I think the first thing to be underlined is that ASAC has no unified, agreed-upon ideology. The opinions I give here are my own, they are not necessarily representative of ASAC as a whole. Within our group there are those on the Left, who would identify themselves as Marxists or anarchists, for example, but we also number many who bring to the group other, wider political  influences. I think that within ASAC we still have to operate on two fronts – both inside and outside the system. For example, many of us would call for the return of substantial state funding raised from a more redistributionist tax system to fund education, and reloosening ‘research priorities’ so that institutions are free to study what they think is important – aims that are not entirely anti-capitalist. However, for myself, the more I have delved into the issues around the global economy, the more I agree with Žižek's assessment. I seriously wonder whether it is possible to place a monetary value on the societal good of institutions such as universities – whether education makes sense within a logic of capitalism and furthermore whether that logic itself can any longer make sense of contemporary realities, is there really a way for the market to adapt to the challenges facing it that have ensued from the recession? So while I would like to hope that there is a way to rescue the funding for universities and turn back this tide of the neo-liberal economics, I’m suspicious of ‘social capitalism’ as a solution to this problem.
Personally I’ve been looking to the Free University as a kind of contingency plan, because if we don’t succeed in fighting the cuts, there still has to be a harbour for the kind of education that doesn’t fit into an MBA. As such, ASAC is both a direct resistance to neo-liberalism and the pursuit of something all together new. It’s a two-pronged strategy that has emerged out of this diverse membership and is a source of tension the movement has to regularly negotiate.

ET: Having been to the March for the Alternative, and witnessed both the official demonstration and direct action at its fringes, what are your reflections on how police tactics are adapting to different protest methods? How can protesters adapt in turn?

HD: I think that protesters need to start being more attuned to the signals that the police send out in the run-up to a protest. I was told by a very experienced activist that if certain phrases crop up in statements by the police such as ‘keep your children away’ or ‘heavy resistance expected’ that this is a signal that police intend to use particularly forceful methods during the protest. In this way, it is questionable whether the police simply seek to prevent the violence, or merely ‘react’ to the violence of protestors – rather they arguably contribute to a ramping up of tension, and indeed could be accused of being responsible for much of the violence themselves, while shifting the blame onto protesters. That said, the Met seem to have changed tactics after the brutal and controversial policing of students in November and early 2011. We are now seeing a more ‘softly-softly’ approach, fewer mass deployments and less indiscriminate kettling. I think this is a good advance, however at the same time they are intensifying their surveillance of protesters. Many of my friends who were arrested in Oxford Street on 26 March had their names taken, their DNA taken, their photograph taken, but – importantly – were never charged with anything. We should investigate how the authorities use this information. It seems that the police are developing a database of protesters – this could set a very dangerous precedent.
Reflecting back on my own experiences of the day, I remember very little police presence along the TUC march, except around Parliament. The police didn't really interfere apart from redirecting you if you strayed off the route. Towards the end of the march, a friend and myself branched off and ran up to Oxford Street as we had heard that UK Uncut and some anarcho-syndicalists dressed in ‘black bloc’ were conducting a protest there. When we arrived we found ourselves in a very different atmosphere to the TUC protest. There were a lot of people in with faces hidden behind scarves and hoods. Initially I found it quite intimidating, I haven’t really been in these situations before. There was a kind of carnival feel to the entire thing – someone threw a balloon full of paint at some nearby photographers, my shoes are still covered in white paint. We never saw who threw what, the crowd was surging and chaotic. It seems even senior officers in the Met can't distinguish between legal and illegal protest.
But this isn’t the full story, for instance
The Guardian website has published UK Uncut video footage of protest inside Fortnum and Mason. The protest was non-violent, staffed with legal observers and was even acknowledged as being peaceful and ‘sensible’ by the officers inside the store. When disorder broke out outside, the UK Uncut protesters were held in the store ‘for their own safety’ by the Met, and were told they would be released once they could be channelled away to avoid getting caught in clashes with riot police outside. However, as soon as they were released from the building, the protesters were kettled, and individually processed. About 150 protestors were detained in cells for 24 hours, some as young as 15, many were terrified. The CPS has since dropped charges against 109, and The Guardian revealed that the police admitted to deception in persuading peaceful protesters to leave the building, while knowing they would be arrested once they had exited. These developments leave great uncertainty about the future of protest and civil disobedience in the UK.

ET: The demonstration in London on 26 March was billed as a March for the Alternative, what kind of an alternative to austerity measures do you envisage, (however embryonic), and are there particular writers, activists or others who have influenced your position?

HD: In terms of the UK economy, I think that we need a much more progressive tax system, with taxation directly proportional to earnings, albeit that the very wealthy should have a large proportion of their income taxed, and the poorest should be exempt from being taxed. In order to find more money we need to clamp down on tax evasion, we could also reconsider how tax bands are structured. However, in order for this to happen, the ideology of the cuts would have to be challenged, the electorate would have to reject the rhetoric of the Westminster coalition. The work of Slavoj Žižek has been very influential for me in illuminating the way in which this ideology has been forged. For Žižek, ideology is not so much about propaganda posters or political manifestos. Rather it refers to how so-called ‘common sense’ understandings of politics are constructed. For example, austerity measures have been very successfully portrayed, not as a political choice, but rather as a necessary response to a force of nature – the deficit. Resistance to the cuts is then depicted as being as naïve and futile as King Canute trying to hold back the waves! As activists we should try to open up those possibilities for alternative policies that have been closed off by the ideology behind the cuts. George Monbiot’s Guardian column and blog have been very useful for me in grounding philosophical critiques of capitalism, in particular his meticulous scrutiny of Treasury documents and tax loopholes.
With regards to the way higher education is taught, figures as diverse as Paulo Freire, Sir Ken Robinson and Jacques Rancière provide us with tantalising starting points for how education can be radically changed. These thinkers recognise that in mainstream education we are taught more than we read in classroom textbooks: we are taught how to defer to authority, what is deemed a ‘stupid question’ and what is not; and in this way we are moulded to fit into the society we live in. I’m convinced that critical thought, logical analysis and encouraging an ability to challenge the ideas around us should be the most valued elements of every university course. The work of Rancière in particular emphasises the exploratory potential of education – where teacher and student together can challenge the boundaries of issues in a communal way that acknowledges that no one individual can fully understand an issue in its totality. In contrast, mainstream education is predicated on the idea of an authority figure ‘imparting’ a particular understanding of the world, thereby leaving dominant power structures dangerously unchallenged.

ET: Finally, what are your personal fears about the policies of the Westminster coalition government, for yourself and those you know?

HD: The core part of my degree has been a cultivation of critical perspectives on politics. The Westminster coalition’s policies on Higher Education will particularly marginalise those courses that encourage such a dissenting approach. This will have a serious effect on the possibility of developing an alternative politics for the future. Instead there will be a focus on education that follows the trajectory of a particular economic model, and develops the skills that the business elite desire for the workplace. But education should be about more than boosting the economy. It should encourage new perspectives that improve the condition of the society that supports it, and redefine the boundaries of politics worldwide. I have been lucky enough to be able to really enjoy my time here at university. I had a great education, for a relatively reasonable price. I wonder though whether students three years from now will be able to sit here and tell you the same thing.

Huw Diprose is studying for a masters in Food and Water Security. He is a member of Aberystwyth Students Against the Cuts.