Richard Roberts Auditorium occupied by ‘The Free University of Sheffield’
“Lectures as normal. We don’t want to spoil your education,” says the sign on the Richard Roberts building at The University of Sheffield. “We’re not the government.”
Since Monday 29 February a group of students calling themselves The Free University of Sheffield have occupied a lecture theatre and seminar room. They’re opposing what they say is the “current assault on higher education” and are calling on the university to, among other things, demonstrate “active resistance to the Higher Education Green Paper”, a document which continues and deepens the marketisation of British universities begun by the Brown Report in 2010. The group have had some high profile support. “I support you completely! I wish I was there and could join you.” That’s Richard Roberts, the Nobel prize-winning scientist whose lecture theatre the group currently occupy.
There’s also sympathy within the university for their aims. On the Green Paper, one of Sheffield’s more insightful and vocal critics writes, “I do not believe that the great successes of British Higher Education have been produced, or will be sustained, by further marketisation […] In Sheffield our own students have resisted this line, and see down the road to where it can lead.” That’s Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the university and Guardian Higher Education Inspiring Leader nominee.
After four days of occupation, when I spoke to the group, the lecture theatre had succumbed to the charms of student life – posters on the walls, unwashed plates lying around and countless pots of houmous. Some of the kettles were also out of action, having been used to make instant noodles. But the mood was positive. They’d hosted a poetry night, a film showing and a lecture, even had some improvised comedy. As Chris Saltmarsh, a second year student of politics and philosophy, explained, “We reclaimed this space to enact the ideal of education we have – non-hierarchical, shared, collaborative.” Although membership of the group is “fluid,” Chris said they’d had 30 to 40 students occupying the building at any one time. Security staff I spoke to put the peak figure at 20.
What’s the goal? The group want to provoke a university that is already “vocally and publically opposed to marketisation” into “meaningful resistance.” They’re calling on university management to make “public pledges of non-compliance” on the Green Paper and Prevent, the government’s anti-terror strategy which, they say, victimises Muslim students. The group hopes to be the pressure from within, to “push the university in the right direction.” When it comes to the VC himself, as Saltmarsh puts it, “Thanks for the public statements but, really, you need to do more.”
Keeping an eye on all this activity is a team from University security. Stony-faced when I first approached, they are, apparently, quite good natured, although the occupier peace offering of houmous and pitta bread was received with some bafflement. They’re more “bread cakes and bacon” guys, they told me. Both security staff I spoke to were unwilling to reveal their name, rank or serial number, though I was told they had “a good working relationship” with the students. This might be underselling it. In the Quiet Room, the democratically agreed lights out rule had been amended by one security staff member from 12 to 1am, because “midnight is too early for students to go to bed.” Another occupier told me that when he’d been spotted putting up a poster on the outside window of the building, the official response was, “I didn’t see that”. “They take them down, we put them up,” explained another. It sounded more like a game than a serious attempt at censorship. Both security staff told me they hadn’t attended university themselves.
In comparison to other Russell Group institutions, Sheffield is a good university to occupy. The students are free to come and go, so food isn’t an issue, and they can easily attend lectures. In contrast, a sit-in at Birmingham in 2014 was broken up by police officers and resulted in a number of student suspensions. Tasers were brandished and CS gas used at Warwick, while at UCL in 2013, after 100 officers cleared an occupation, the University of London declared a six-month ban on campus protests.
Sheffield has no record of reporting its own students and members of the Free University group admit they have never been disciplined over their activities, despite organising other occupations. There’s mixed feelings about Sheffield’s benevolent regime. As Saltmarsh put it, “I’m not going to celebrate them for not calling the police on their own students.”
But is anyone listening? When I conducted a thoroughly unscientific poll outside the Students’ Union I found a range of awareness, from complete ignorance to vague knowledge. The more clued-in students tended to be those campaigning for the upcoming Student Officer elections. When the Free University group staged a lunch-time rally, it was mostly to these electioneerers that they were talking – the already engaged persuading the already committed. Chants of “anti, anti, anti, anti-capitalista!” largely fell flat. “There’s free houmous…” got a better response. When I looked around, there were far more students in the library than in the occupied lecture theatre.
University management are paying some attention. Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching, Wyn Morgan, and Director of Estates, Keith Lilley, met with the students after two days. According to the group, the meeting was brief and polite. “They seemed completely uncommittal, quite aloof,” according to one occupier. The group were told their concerns were being considered but no detail was given.
What’s at stake here is the idea of what a university is and who it is for. The vision of the government is of higher education institutions as engines of economic growth. They provide the skills and expertise for commerce, industry and development. But those skills in themselves only have value in relation to their economic utility. Allowing profession-conscious students to move their tuition fees around an expanded and more open system will ensure institutions which provide ‘value for money’ will flourish while others wither. In contrast, knowledge for its own sake – of teachers and learners sharing more than an economic transaction, of a contribution towards the public good which exceeds GDP – is the vision of many currently studying, teaching and researching in our universities.
The Free University of Sheffield has made its allegiance quite clear. The University itself has made strong and coherent public statements: markets are not a good model for universities. It would be a grave error to unleash them. But if on paper their aims are the same, in reality occupiers and administrators have very different reputations to lose.
In a timely coincidence, just as the University is attempting to remove rebellious students from its buildings, David Willets, the former Universities Minister, is being invited in. No doubt management will extend the same courtesy to their “in conversation” guest as they have to their more vexing members, but the juxtaposition is a stark reminder of the choice facing the University – resist or reform, persuade or refuse?
Words: Robert Thomas
Images: The Free University of Sheffield