Occupying the University

Students at the University of Cambridge – the only public university not to recognise its union – write about their occupation in support of the UCU strike and against the marketisation of higher education.

We are students at the University of Cambridge who have occupied the University Management Building (“Old Schools”) in support of and in solidarity with striking members of the University and College Union (UCU). UCU is fighting for formal recognition from the university, as well as two broad demands – opposing changes to the USS pension scheme, and on pay; the ‘four fights,’ consisting of the amelioration of gender and racial pay inequalities, workloads and casualisation.

Cambridge is the only public university that does not recognise UCU, and several of its constituent colleges have played key roles in undermining workers’ pensions. If the workers’ union were to be formally recognised, UCU would be able to participate in collective bargaining with the university regarding the terms and members conditions of their work. It is in support of these aims, as well as for our own vision for this institution characterised by elitism and ruling class power, that we have occupied Old Schools.

Our demands are:

  • The University of Cambridge must recognise UCU.*
  • The VC, Stephen Toope, must make a public statement calling for UCU’s demands to be met by employers and the national pensions and employment bodies.
  • The VC must set out the University of Cambridge’s plans for meeting the national and local UCU demands, alongside those of UNITE and UNISON.
  • The VC must sign the Undoing Borders ‘Pledge Against the Hostile Environment’.
  • The VC must agree to an open meeting before the end of term as part of a commitment to meet with students and workers twice termly.
  • Students and workers face no disciplinary measures for taking part in peaceful direct action in support of the strikes.

To demonstrate student support for the strike, we have occupied the halls of power in Cambridge, built by and for beneficiaries of a model of education premised upon the exploitation of precarious labour. The disconnect between daily life in the occupation (screening Parasite, eating communal meals or drafting vast canvasses of Rosa Luxemburg in the Senior Common Room – now renamed ‘Stuart Hall Hall’) and the grandeur of Old Schools is not lost on us – we see it as representative of the reclamation and democratisation of a space designed by and for the ruling class to insulate themselves from the rabble outside. Throughout this week, students, workers and friends have flown in and out, remaking and commoning a site defined by its elitism.

We refuse to concede to the divide-and-rule tactics of university management pitting students against striking workers. The struggle against casualisation, exploitation and inequality, and for union recognition and empowerment, is a shared struggle for both workers and students. Teaching conditions are learning conditions. Furthermore, students with an eye to entering academia are increasingly staring into a proletarianised future of poor pay, precarity, stress and overwork – one wrought through with serious gender and racial disparities. Through our occupation, alongside other direct actions, we stand in solidarity with our lecturers, teachers and colleagues against our common enemy: the marketisation of the university. The same social forces and ideological dogmas that casualise contracts, threaten pensions and oppose union power have commodified our education, saddled us with obscene levels of debt and championed the conception of education as a transactional product for purchase and sale, rather than a metabolic social good.

Our occupation is intended to serve as an embryonic space of collective solidarity within and against Cambridge University, an institution established and maintained for the production and reproduction of the ruling class. A series of teach-outs from academics, students and visitors have been organised on topics from the Global Arms Trade and the Sudanese Revolution to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, an exercise in radical pedagogy whose open and participatory format – teaching and learning for their own worth rather than along the prescriptive lines of a university course – offers a glimpse into what education as an emancipatory good, rather than simply a means to attain qualifications, might look like. From starting a library and collaborating on each others’ essays to just sharing ideas through casual conversation, we have learned from one another on a more profound level than that offered by any course. The occupation has been experienced not as an impediment to, but as a revolution of, our education.

Similarly, through watching films, listening to live music, playing football on the Senate House lawn and engaging in collective protest, we are attempting to carve out an open and collaborative cultural space to work, play and be within an often alienating institution. Institutions like Cambridge so often preclude common spaces and collective learning opportunities such as these, so we see the diffuse community we have built as a statement against the atomising ideologies, as well as the exploitative practices, that constitute the neoliberal university.

This is the third wave of UCU strike action in Cambridge in as many years, a struggle alongside which has developed a radical tradition of student-worker solidarity. Through the gains we hope to achieve through our occupation, most importantly university recognition of UCU, we hope to encourage the development of a centre of union militancy and power in Cambridge – working to take the fight to marketisation from within one of the most egregious centres of elitism, inequality and exploitation in the country.

Major progress has been made in Cambridge through the last two years of industrial action, showing that collective trade union action backed up by a creative student movement – and will – win. Strikes in 2018, alongside a previous occupation of Old Schools, forced a number of concessions including the rolling out of new financial support schemes for pensions, as well as a public statement by Stephen Toope against the “fundamental error” of university marketisation and a pledge of continued open meetings with staff and students. Such meetings, however, have not yet materialised. To ensure past pledges are honoured, and to force new concessions, will require continued strike and solidarity action including student occupations. 

Thankfully we are not alone, there are currently several ongoing student actions across the country – a movement of the national scale required to combat the nationwide injustice of marketisation. What’s more, with the Johnson government looking for its first union scalp, student support for UCU in coming months will be even more important in resisting the coming national offensive on union power. So get out on the picket lines, show solidarity with university workers and fight together to win together. The students and the workers will never be defeated.

*At the time of writing, the university have agreed to allow UCU to make a formal application for recognition.