The times have changed, but East London remains a place of protest
Since late February, more than 60 British universities have been impacted by the University and College Union’s (UCU) decision to take industrial action over plans to slash their pensions by between 40-75% depending on each institution. These plans have come following almost a decade of real-term wage cuts which have seen UCU member’s pay cut by 20% in London since 2009.
Although the strikes came to an end earlier this week, no deal between Universities UK (UUK) and the UCU was reached and a further 14 days of strikes are looking increasingly likely. Despite the disruption to their studies, thousands of students have come out in support of the UCU staff that have been on the picket lines for weeks now. At Queen Mary, University of London in the historic East End, more than 2,500 students have signed a petition in solidarity with those on strike showing that student-staff solidarity is well and truly alive.
Students at over 23 universities have demonstrated their increasing frustrations at what many view as the continuous process of marketising British higher education by reclaiming educational spaces for students. From Sussex to Edinburgh, Liverpool and Cambridge, students have taken direct action to stand against university management and to stand tall and proud in defence of their valued educators!
At Queen Mary, University of London, students are continuing the area’s tradition of radical history. Based in Mile End, the university is just a stone’s throw away from Cable Street where local residents, anti-fascists and socialists united to counter-protest Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) march back in 1936. Clearly, students of the East End have still got guts when it comes to standing up for what they believe in.
However, in 2018 the fight appears to be against the enemy from within: Principal Colin Bailey and Vice Principal for Student Experience, Teaching and Learning, Rebecca Lingwood. Bailey, a former Vice Principal of the University of Manchester, has faced opposition from students before. In 2016, students at Manchester occupied his office in protest at the sacking of catering staff despite the university boasting of a £46 million profit for the 2014/5 financial year. Evidently, Bailey is unpopular amongst students wherever he goes and is committed to putting profits before staff.
For almost two weeks, more than 40 students from a range of backgrounds, nationalities and political persuasions have come together to occupy Queen Mary’s historic Octagon building with the backing of several MPs including Wes Streeting, Dennis Skinner, and Caroline Lucas as well as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell.
The occupiers’ aims have been made clear. They want Bailey and Lingwood to reverse plans to cut bursaries for students, release information on the institution’s gender pay gap and for the university’s management team to speak out in support of striking UCU staff. From 2018/9, the Queen Mary University of London bursary will be significantly reduced for the majority of its recipients. If this model goes ahead, students from households with an annual income of between £15,001 and £30,000 will be losing £750 whilst students whose household income is greater than £30,001 will no longer receive financial assistance. Research carried out by Queen Mary in 2016 found that more than 40% of bursary recipients had previously seriously considered dropping out due to financial strains which is therefore likely to increase as a result of the planned changes.
Since 2004, the Higher Education Act has led to a quasi-market within educational institutions that has led to the deregulation of student bursaries. Deregulation was intended to give students the ability to hold management to account as much of the funding is now down to the discretion of each individual institution. However, at Queen Mary, University of London (like the majority of universities in the UK), senior management have taken decisions to axe financial support for students (who can now more accurately be described as customers) without full disclosure as to why the cuts are seen as necessary and have failed to inform students who receive the bursary, exactly where the money is being ‘reallocated’.
These changes completely dismiss the university’s own financial research conducted in 2016. Andrea Brügger Aakre, a 20-year old International Relations student has been part of the occupation of the Octagon since day 1. She states that “Queen Mary has commissioned its own research that clearly shows that bursaries are vital in supporting student’s mental well-being and their ability to study in London. These bursary cuts fly in the face of Queen Mary’s own findings and demonstrate managements desire to treat students simply as cash cows”.
Information from the Undergraduate Student Finance Survey 2016: Results and Analysis report, highlights the financial struggles facing Queen Mary’s students. Student overdrafts continue to be a lifeline for covering financial shortfalls and provide help in covering basic living costs. Other findings suggest that students feel negatively impacted by working more than 10 hours in addition to studying at university and have stated that working is crucial in paying for basics such as rent. Therefore, Bailey and Lingwood’s bursary cuts are likely to impact students who are already doing all they can to make ends meet.
Vanieztia Inniss, a 20-year old Physics student would not be close to graduating without the financial support that Bailey and Lingwood are intending to take away. “In my first year, my stepdad passed away and I, therefore, had to spend a lot of time going between university and home in order to support my mum which was expensive. I simply would not have been able to stay in university as well as support her if I did not have the additional financial support from Queen Mary through the bursary”.
As of yet, both Colin Bailey and Rebecca Lingwood have done little more than pay lip service to student outrage, and have shown no sign that they intend to address their mistakes. The students remain committed to the occupation until their demands are adequately met and appear to be determined to occupy the building for as long as it takes.