Solidarity with Defend Education Birmingham

A statement of support from Bristol Left:

Bristol Left would like to express solidarity with the student activists currently occupying the Senate Chambers at the University of Birmingham. The symbolic importance of the venue of occupation is not lost on us. University Senate is historically a body of democratic decision-making, where student and academic representatives debate and deliberate on crucial policies affecting and shaping the University. In recent decades, we have seen this crucial body stripped of its democratic power and increasingly used as a Management mouthpiece. This is also the case at Bristol, as well as across the country.

We are full of admiration and appreciation for the students occupying, who through their brave actions have highlighted the worrying lack of democratic debate and decision-making at the University of Birmingham and across the UK. We condemn any efforts by Birmingham University Management to intimidate these students’ legitimate right to protest and to shut down democratic dissent. Particularly, we condemn in the strongest terms possible the attempt by management to take out an injunction against its own students and saddle them with more than £10,000 of legal fees.

We call on our Students’ Union (UBU) and the Bristol branch of Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) to express support for Defend Education Birmingham and for their right to protest free of harassment and intimidation in any form.

For more information on the campaign to Defend Education Birmingham, see:

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Today, women make up the majority of university attendees – though it’s taken over 100 years to get here. The path into higher education was not, as with most things to do with universal inclusion, simple or straightforward. In addressing the above, I’ll be trying to find out where Bristol stands in the slow, disjointed process of women being allowed to get degrees.

First, a little background. In 1870, a full 142 years ago, education was universalised. This meant that in the U.K, the vast majority of children received only elementary education – today’s equivalent of a GCSE – and the situation remains much the same today. Though, for the few that went on to further education, the next step was college. Some colleges, upon receiving a charter, became universities.

Women were permitted onto a limited number of courses, and were often overseen and organised by Ladies’ Educational Associations (LEAs), most of which were set up in the 1860s and 1870s. These LEAs were often based in larger cities; they promoted, organised women’s higher education, examinations and provided a support network for women teachers – amidst a largely undecided public. London Ladies’ Educational Association began to organise ‘lectures for ladies’ outside the university college grounds, which was eventually incorporated into the main college. Edinburgh’s LEA secured similar teaching facilities, prompting a certificate particularly for women in 1872. This certificate meant that the woman in question had been educated to a high standard in literature or the arts, St. Andrews in particular offering an LLA (Lady Literate in Arts). Though, it is important to note this was not a degree, and Emily Davies wrote a concerned letter in the same year to Edinburgh’s LEA warning of the potentially damaging consequences of splitting standards in this way.

The University of Bristol gained its charter in 1909, having been preceded by University College and a College of Medicine in the city. John Percival, the head teacher of Clifton College from 1862-1879 supported the creation of university college, and subsequently, the university itself. Percival was a deeply religious figure, and, drawing his morals from his religion, was quoted as saying “there should be as little as possible of a barrier between masters and boys; that our relations with them should be … those of friends…” . This, in an era of staunch paternalism, was nothing short of anarchism. Percival also thought that education should be for everyone, men and women, rich and poor alike. To this end, Percival set up his own Association, the Association for the Promotion of the Higher Education for Women in 1868, which campaigned for and provided more education for women. As a result of Percival’s influence, Bristol’s University College was the first to admit women and men on equal grounds.

Women were first permitted onto a degree course in 1878, and the first degrees were conferred upon women in 1880 by University College London. Many women had previously studied, and did not need to complete much further study to attain their degrees. While Bristol was not the first university to confer degrees upon women, it was among them, and had been congratulated in Christina Bremner’s 1897 book, for its progressive attitude (aside from the medical school, which, in keeping with the attitude of the time did not admit women until some years later).

The university benefitted from visionary figures like Percival in its egalitarian attitude, but defends its status as an inclusive university. More recently, historian Negley Harte and Sir John Kingman, (Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor at the time) had a rather public argument about which university was the first to admit women. It was made quite clear that admitting women and awarding degrees before any other university is, today, a prized status for Bristol. A rare success story in feminism’s history, it seems!

By Bethany Benker, who is studying for a Masters in Social Science Research Methods (Sociology) at the University of Bristol. She has her own fantastic blog here:

Beth would like to thank Doctor Sue Bruley (,2186,en.html) and Professor Carol Dyhouse (

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Statement of Support for Sussex Against Privatisation

The ever-increasing managerialism, privatisation and marketisation in education, along with the corresponding deterioration of working conditions for all staff, has to stop somewhere. The endeavour to stop this has to be connected to a continuing opposition to the regime of cuts and fees imposed on universities and the rest of the public sector; it is something we encourage all students and university workers across the UK to take action on. As such we fully support the actions and demands of the Sussex occupation.

In Solidarity,
Bristol Left

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Students organise ‘week of action/events’ to take back their education

Education Barcode/map - #1world1struggle

Not only is the government cutting education, but within the university there is patriarchy, worsening conditions for staff, and a lack of democracy. As a way of beginning to fight back, Bristol University students have organised a ‘week of action and events’ leading up to the NUS National Demonstration taking place in London on 21st November (more details: The week’s events aim to look at how to create democracy, equality and fairness in higher education, and how to oppose austerity measures inflicted upon us from above.

This has been organised as part of the Global Education Strike ( The strike is being co-ordinated through the International Students Movement – a communication platform used by education activists worldwide.

Facebook event for the whole week:

Wednesday 14th – Forum: Why we’re attending the NUS Demo 2012 –

Thursday 15th – The University is watching you! : Protest against monitoring of international students –

Thursday 15th – Protest and Policing: your rights, and how to stay free –

Friday 16th – Change: University, Democracy and Participation –

Saturday 17th – Banner Making – taking place between 1-4pm in the Art Room, Students Union

Monday 19th – Gender and Power: The University as a Patriarchal Institution? –

Tuesday 20th – Montreal calling: How student strikes beat tuition fee rises in Quebec –
(followed by banner-making for the demo the next day)

Wednesday 21st – Demo2012: National Demonstration for Education, Employment, and Empowerment –


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Open letter to UK education activists: The struggle against the neoliberalisation of education is international!

(written by Reclaim Education! Bristol).

Starting next week, we are organising a week of action at our university, to co-incide with the Global Education Strike called by the International Students Movement ( ). While students from Indonesia, Thailand, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, California and Quebec have already announced actions for this week, so far Bristol is the only university in the UK that is taking part in anything to do with the International Students Movement (ISM). We think this is a shame and that more UK groups should get involved!

We acknowledge that currently student activism in the UK is at a bit of a low compared to 2010, but this is all the more reason to associate with the global struggle. Working together across borders increases the visibility of our movement, and helps to boost our morale. Co-ordinating together also means that we can share ideas, and learn from each other. Critically, the neo-liberalisation and commercialisation of education is international in scope. It knows no borders. It makes sense that the fight against it should be international, too!

The Global Education Strike starts next week, from the 14th-22nd November. There are a couple of things that we would suggest you or your local group do to take part:

1) Link mobilisation on your campus for the November 21st demo to the global strike. You can do this by using the symbols and slogans from the common framework ( ), and by reminding people going that actions are happening at universities worldwide this week too.

2) Organise events during the week and announce them here ( )

As well as participating in strike, it is important that we take part in the ISM, so that next time we can take a more active part in global actions. Getting involved in the ISM is simple: just sign up for the mailing list. If you are part of a local group, you can get them to endorse ISM’s joint statement ( ), and nominate someone to attend online meetings, which are announced on the mailing list.

The ISM is an open platform for cooperation, coordination, communication, and collaboration between different individuals and groups involved with the struggle to reclaim education. It is the people and groups that use the ISM who write collective statements, synergize efforts, coordinate, make signs and symbols, and continually expand the horizons of the struggle to emancipate education.

It was initiated during the coordinations of the International Day of Action against the Commercialization of Education on November 5th 2008.

The ISM is generally open to everyone (whether students/pupils, parents, lecturers/faculty, or staff/workers) who supports our collective struggle and has always been and will always be independent of any political party, union, or other institution. Due to the nature of platforms nobody can represent or speak for the ISM as a whole. Nonetheless the international joint statement currently endorsed by 100 groups in more than 40 countries gives an idea of what many people and groups connected to the ISM stand for.

ISM website:

Mailing list: (register your email with to sign up)


In solidarity,
Reclaim Education! Bristol

Reclaim Education! Poster

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Staff and Students Protest at Higher Education Minister’s Visit

Bristol students protested yesterday against the visit to Bristol by the Minister of State for Universities, David Willetts MP. See more information, with pictures and videos, of the various forms of protest on display here. In response to the staff and students’ protest, the Minister agreed to meet with five representatives. Here is the transcript from that meeting:

Meeting with David Willetts, 10/05/12 at Chemistry Dept, UoB.


Cerelia Athanassiou (C.A) – Postgraduate international politics student

Georgina Bavetta (G.B) – Undergraduate politics and philosophy student, UBU officer

Jamie Melrose (J.M) – Postgraduate researcher and teaching assistant, SPAIS

Matt Hollinshead (M.H) – Undergraduate philosophy student at UWE

Rowan Tomlinson (R.T) – French lecturer

  • Before going in, we were briefed by David Clarke (Deputy VC) that we should remember we are representing the University, so we should take care not to bring any disrespect to UoB’s reputation or do anything embarrassing.
  • Similarly, we were then taken in by Willetts’s security officer and told that we should switch off our phones and not bring in any recording devices to the meeting – they had to see us switch everything off. At that point, University Security took down everyone’s names; there was an initial kerfuffle over the fact that Matt was from UWE, but then we said that he was invited there by us and that we are vouching for him. Georgina put down her name as the person responsible for him.
  • We were then taken to the Head of Chemistry’s office, told to leave our jackets and bags in an adjoining secretarial office and sat down waiting for the Minister (about 10 mins). One of the members of the security team remarked to a member of staff that we had “been ordered….I mean asked to turn phones off”.
  • It should be noted that the attitude of the security staff was both intimidatory – “I think I’m not going to let this one in” – and patronizing – “Don’t waste your opportunity now; you’re very lucky to get a chance to speak to him”. On questioning the assumptions of gratefulness and deference behind the latter quote, Jamie got the former, or words to that effect, as a reply.
  • Willetts’s press officer came in first, telling us how fortunate we were to have received 5 minutes ‘diary time’.

When Willetts came in, we all introduced ourselves and said that Jamie had a few words to say at the beginning (as we had established between ourselves quickly beforehand).

J.M: We want to note that this protest is in solidarity with Owen Holland, who was recently suspended from Cambridge University for two and a half years for disrupting your visit by reading a poem. Are you happy with what has happened to him?

D.W: I don’t think it’s fair of me to comment on the internal procedures of Cambridge University. All I can say is that I had been invited to give a lecture, and many people were disappointed that I was prevented from making it. I value freedom of speech.

G.B: I’m glad you value freedom of speech, but does that not extend to Holland? Surely by that logic you should condemn the decision to suspend his studies…

D.W: I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on the internal procedures of Cambridge University.

M.H: It’s ironic that you are talking about freedom of speech and inability to lecture when the policies that the Government are implementing at the moment are denying junior academics the ability to teach as well.

D.W:  We have no alternative to the cuts in the face of current financial problems.

R.T.: Problems that are not being remedied by your government’s insistence on ‘austerity’.

 D.W.: Now we could have a wider debate about economics, but I don’t want to do that. Either you raise the fees or you cut the number of students or the teaching provided. The policy being implemented in universities is the fairest, most progressive thing to do: to have graduates pay for the education they have received. We inherited a spending plan from the last government, and in fact the amount of teaching resources at the end of this term in office will be better than it was at the beginning.

R.T: You’re justifying the imposition of 9k fees by relying on the argument about the need for austerity. But haven’t you in fact used this opportunity to introduce other measures and changes that are hugely detrimental? We’re all very concerned by the moves towards privatisation in the White Paper. We don’t want a university sector that resembles the American model. People have argued that the extortionate fees in the US are justified by the provision of extensive bursaries, but really this financial support is largely tokenistic and not half as extensive as is made out. Is that privatised system something that the Minister endorses?

D.W: What we are envisaging is not an American style system. We have things that the American system does not have. They have no universal student financing system. They have no maintenance grants. At the same time, when you argue against privatisation you are somewhat missing the point. Universities are, after all, not public sector bodies; they are autonomous bodies. This is a good thing. Would you want the entire cost and running of universities to be taken on by the state?

All: Yes.

R.T: Do you not believe in education as a public good?

D.W: Of course it is a public good, but there are private benefits. Graduates earn more than those who do not go to university, so it is they who should be paying for their education; it is based on the fact that earnings are progressive.

G.B: Income tax is also progressive. Why not fund it with that?

M.H: …especially when those from working class backgrounds are much more likely to be debt averse.

C.A: And to return to a previous point you made, the things that distinguish UK universities from their US counterparts, like the maintenance grants you mention, are things that we have as a result of social struggle [I think it’s at this point that David Clarke told me to be civilised] and of the resulting public sphere that you seem so intent on destroying now.

D.W: We are trapped in a language of fees, loans and debts. This is a graduate tax, just one with a connection to the university. This isn’t like being in debt with a commercial loan. The rates of interest are low, and you only pay it back when you are earning 21k. It is really not that different from what is being proposed by the NUS.

R.T: I’m a French lecturer, and in France where education is valued and defended as a public good, a wider variety of students have access to it, as opposed to the UK where we have already seen and are likely to see a further significant drop in the number of students from under-privileged background in universities.

D.W: People talk about the European systems but I was at Sciences-Po the other day [in Paris) and the reality is that this institution – the equivalent to an institution like Bristol – charges fees upfront; this policy does not do that, it charges afterwards.

R.T. The reality is that an institution like Sciences Po does not represent more than a tiny percentage of the HE institutions in France. Most universities in France are free at the point of entry.

G.B: I’d like to touch on an issue which is relevant to us here in Bristol, having struggled against proposals to replace bursaries with fee waivers.

(Deputy Vice-Chancellor, David Clarke gets very flustered and interrupts)

D.C: Well actually we have listened to students and are offering new students a choice between a fee waiver and a bursary.

G.B: All I want to know is what the minister thinks about this and whether he supports replacing bursaries with fee waivers.

D.W: I think it seems fair enough to say that students should be offered the choice between a fee waiver and a bursary. I have spoken to Liam Burns about this, and he has told me that he prefers bursaries, which to me a clear sign that he acknowledges that tuition fees which you pay off after university are not as evil as everyone is making out.

G.B: I highly doubt that what Burns is doing is endorsing tuition fees; it’s just a recognition that protecting bursaries at the expense of fee waivers is the lesser of two evils.

M.H: Many students are deciding not to apply to university because of poverty.

R.T: And it’s all very well saying that it’s ok, because the fees can be paid off gradually, over a lifetime, but that fact is that the burden of debt won’t be equal as many upper-class students will have their fees paid off by their parents, straightaway. After all, £9k a year is often the same as the fees for a public school education so not a massive difference to them, whereas poorer students are being left behind.

* At this point, David Clarke and the ‘aides’ started making moves to get Willetts out of the room

C.A: I just want to point out that there are only five of us here today with the chance to talk to you. That is not good enough. Would the minister be willing to make a promise to come back to Bristol to talk to students about higher education policy and give the rest of the student body a chance to have their say? There are many important issues which need to be discussed that can’t be covered in a five minute interview, including REF scores (at which Willetts rolled his eyes) and the privileging of research over teaching.

D.W: I am more than happy to talk to students and explain our policy to them.

[Further efforts to get DW to commit to a return visit and to a full debate, in the spirit of his apparent commitment to freedom of speech]

R.T: Would you like to comment on the freedom of speech that led to the vote of no confidence in you at Oxford University, a vote that I was involved in?

D. W. It is as it is.

David Clarke ended by saying that he would like to thank the Minister for taking time out of his schedule to meet with us as he was standing up and looking at us expectantly. To which Matt replied that Clarke can thank him, but he will not. I think most of the ‘delegation’ did say thank you, whether standing up or still sitting down, all very civilised, though I think we did make it clear that we were in fundamental disagreement with the Minister, with the UoB senior management and with the Government. To every one of our points, Willetts just replied with the standard Government spiel, but I think we did communicate that just as there was a senior management delegation happy to appease, there is also dissatisfaction here with government policy. We didn’t represent all disciplines of the University, but at least there was a mixture of undergrads, postgrads and a lecturer there to register that this dissatisfaction is not just limited to one constituency.


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Why the Student Debt is Too Damn High

 The arguments used to support nine-grand tuition fees are relatively simple. First, since students are the ‘main beneficiaries’ of higher education, they should also be the main contributors to its cost. Second, the country has a large budget deficit that means spending cuts are necessary. Since subsidising higher education is much less important than trident replacement or bombing Libya, it has to be axed.

 There are simple reasons to doubt both of these claims. Imposing massive debt on students is just part of an attack on universities, and one element of a wide-ranging austerity programme. This programme will cut services needed by the vulnerable, and dis-proportionately affect women, the disabled, and ethnic minorities. Student resistance in 2010 helped to kick-start the national anti-cuts movement and rally opposition to the slow dismantling of free education. As such it is vital that we continue to organise resistance, both in our own universities and in the country as a whole.

 A degree is supposed to benefit the student by increasing their employability, giving them skills that can be used in the workplace. While this ignores the role that an education plays in personal well-being, and the theory that having lots of people able to think critically is good for society, it also ignores one of the most obvious beneficiaries of all – the future employer. The reason having a degree increases employability is that businesses benefit from having skilled workers.

 While people with degrees do tend to get higher wages, their bosses will always profit more from their workers’ labour than they pay out (that’s capitalism). They are, in fact, the main beneficiary of their employees education. The tendency towards higher education becoming more like job training, under the guise of improving the ‘student experience’ means that corporations are slowly gaining more and more influence in universities [1]. This will lead to universities gradually becoming less and less about sharing ideas and promoting critical thought. Rather they will be ‘education factories’, churning out willing and compliant workers, all at the workers own expense!

 Of course, not all graduates will be employed by private businesses – some will go on to work in the public sector. For them, the case for a free education is even stronger. Many of them will go on to provide a great public service to us – teaching our kids, and caring for us when we’re in hospital. A free education encourages people to train to become teachers and doctors in the first place. The press and the government tend to portray students as posh  youngsters trying to scrounge a free education from the ‘ordinary’ hard-working taxpayer, who benefits nothing from the transaction. In actual fact businesses are tax-payers too (in theory at least, but that’s another issue), and are trying to get their workers, through the means of student debt, to pay for their own training.

 Arguments that ‘the deficit is too high’ have faced numerous critiques from a wide range of sources, including the last edition of this newsletter [2]. It is far from certain that the deficit is actually a big problem, or that widespread cuts in government spending are the best way to deal with it. It is certainly hard to see how dismantling higher education, cutting services needed by the most vulnerable, and implementing austerity measures that disproportionately effect women, ethnic minorities and the disabled, is a good a way forward. It is also hard to see why student debt makes any real difference in the short term [3].

 Students who are having the new fees imposed upon them will not have to start paying back any of their debt until at least April, 2016. Even then, most will not be earning enough to make significant repayments for years, and many will never pay back the full amount. What will reduce government spending is less students going to university in the first place. Budget cuts implemented by university management have already meant the closure of many departments across the country. The scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance and the closure of many youth services means that more students from working-class backgrounds will not even be able apply for university places in the first place. High levels of debt are only going to dissuade potential students further.

 Students involved in resisting the dismantling of our education system in 2010 felt a sense of betrayal by almost every institution that they had come to trust. New Labour had already broken election promises a decade ago by introducing top-up fees. Liberal Democrat MPs who rely on student votes, and many of whom signed personal pledges to vote against any rise in fees, helped carry through the changes in parliament that saw fees treble. Police, who people had been brought up to trust, kettled protesters for hours in the cold [4] and beat at least one student to within an inch of his life [5]. Many student unions failed to adequately support their students. NUS president Aaron Porter helped the press to divide and weaken the movement, and demonise anyone taking more militant action than marching quietly on pre-planned routes. Some Vice Chancellors, far from listening to the concerns of the students and staff they’re supposed to act in the interests of, wrote a letter in support of the increase in tuition fees. A major player in this betrayal was in fact none other than our own Vice Chancellor – Eric Thomas.

 One of the things I think this meant for us was the realisation that the cuts were not just the project of a few conservatives in parliament, but were being supported, proposed and implemented by people with power in almost every section of our society. This means that we need to display resistance at every level too, and not just demonstrate outside the houses of parliament. We need to show the banks and the corporations that we will not pay for their crisis. We need to protest against local councils co-operating with the cuts. We need defendants campaigns and support for people arrested at our demonstrations. And most of all we need to resist the corporate takeover of our own university, especially confronting the role of management in imposing this.

 Students’ loss of faith in “the system” however, was matched by an increase in grass-roots organising. Students organised their own “peoples’ assemblies”, without help from their student unions. Management censored mass emails about protests and occupations that gave anything other than their own version of events. In response, students used social media and leafleting on the street to get their message out. University students and sixth-form college students took part in co-ordinated walk-outs and marched together. In Bristol University, over one hundred staff signed letters of support for the  people occupying Senate House. This was reciprocated when students joined them on picket lines during their strike later next year. Major unions, as well as anarchist and socialist groups, provided much direct, practical support.

 In my opinion, it is the strength that came from these displays of solidarity and grass-roots work (as well as the willingness of many students to take militant action such as occupations, blockades and unauthorised marches) that led to the watering-down of many reforms, not to mention their near-defeat in parliament. If we want to save our university, then these trends need to be sustained. It is vital that, as students, we work to support any staff on strike or under threat from redundancy, and work with wider anti-cuts groups.  Equally, we need to continue to be open to taking militant direct action. Even if we don’t use militant tactics, the fact that we might means that those in power will be more willing to take us seriously while we are still following the rules. Finally, it is important that we build non-hierarchical structures (such as say, newsletters, wink wink) outside of the university bureaucracy. That way our ideas and plans for action can be debated freely without censorship or fear of reprisal from management.

[1]for example, Bristol University recently signed a three-year agreement with the bank Santander
[2]see ‘Myth-busting in the age of austerity’, Issue 3 –

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