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Cracking Down on Student Dissent

In the University of Stirling, harsh penalties handed out to students who occupied in support of striking staff sends a clear message – resistance to the neoliberal university will not be tolerated.

The global coronavirus pandemic has meant that September’s return to university was always going to be a bit different. Restrictions on gatherings will limit drunken introductions for freshers and hamper reunions for those returning for another year. But for one student in Stirling, the new semester sees him forced onto Universal Credit by the university responsible for his well-being.

Morgan Lewis-Wilson was one of the ‘Stirling 13’ – a group of students suspended after occupying a management building on the university’s campus, just outside of the historic Scottish town. Those behind the occupation held the management building for over a week, offering solidarity to University and College Union (UCU) members on an eight-day strike, and criticising the lack of mental health and student support offered on campus.

The university wasted no time in laying down the law. Before students broke up for the end of semester in December, letters had been sent out to those identified by campus security, warning them they faced disciplinary action. Before the end of January, an investigation had been launched, and in February punishments were handed out. Some were left hanging while a deeper investigation was handled by the university, who began organising disciplinary hearings.

Of the twenty or so young activists involved, thirteen were given suspensions, bans from classes, and were restricted from accessing almost all support services. Among those involved in the occupation, Morgan faced the heaviest punishment with a year’s suspension. Without a job during a global crisis, he was forced onto Universal Credit. A further two – Lauren Harper and Aaron Caulfield – were given a full semester’s ban from the university, while all three were hit with hundreds of pounds in fines.

Documents obtained by the students and seen by Tribune show the university had stronger measures in mind. If it had not been for advocates from within and outside of Stirling Students Union, the university may have succeeded in removing those involved from their studies altogether. And all for the crime of standing in solidarity with striking lecturers.

“They really wanted to go after me,” Morgan said. “The situation means I can’t claim a student loan and have no income, which is why I’m now on Universal Credit. The university believed there’s not much of a human element to their actions – there was no consideration that I might have no money and might be in severe poverty.”

On its website, the University of Stirling proudly outlines its vision and values. According to its own mission statement, those at the institution say they are responsible for “transforming the lives” of students “by making them resilient and giving them the skills they need for the modern world” and “by instilling in them a sense of responsibility to promote public good.”

But the punishments dished out to Morgan show a cruel interpretation of this ethos. Indeed, the sudden shift onto Universal Credit must be a significant test of “resilience” for anyone. A University of Sterling spokesperson told Tribune that the occupation was a “serious and prolonged breach of fire safety regulations,” which was of “central consideration” during Morgan’s disciplinary; they concluded that it posed a “risk” to staff and student safety. 

But claims from the occupiers who were subsequently punished tell a different story. Those involved said the university’s treatment of them caused a “significant amount of mental stress.” Lauren Harper, who was just 17 at the time of the occupation, said the occupation was completely peaceful, and the university’s response was a result of management being challenged.

“We figured out how to hit them where it hurts and they wanted to stop that,” she said. “The letters suspending us described us as a significant threat. I feel like the group as a whole was made an example of. All of the punishments were unfair. The university doesn’t care about their duty of care, it cares about profit. I think it’s a tactic on behalf of management to try and squash any criticism of them. It’s complete contempt for workers.”

For others, the stress of the situation took its toll. Caulfield’s suspension was not his first run-in with the university; in 2019, while still a first year, he had gone into occupation after more than a month of homelessness. A disciplinary issue saw him removed from student housing, but with a choice between moving away from Stirling and continuing his studies, he resorted to staying with other students – primarily from the university tenants’ union – or on some occasions sleeping in toilets next to lecture theatres. He was just 16 at the time.

After the occupation he was removed from campus, and is set to return when classes resume this month. The Labour member said that, as he understands it, if he is involved with any more radical political activity, he would be expelled. “There were some mitigating factors, but the punishments were in order to stifle any further action on campus,” Caulfield added, claiming the disciplinary action sparked a decline in his mental health which led to substance abuse he is yet to fully recover from. “I completely spiralled from that moment, it was not a good time at all really. The only support I got was from the students’ union, otherwise the university offered nigh on no support.”

Dan McPadden, who was given a reduced eight-week suspension, told Tribune that the punishments were “completely over the top.” He wonders whether there was political intent to the suspensions over the occupation being handed out two months after the event – but two weeks before another wave of UCU strikes. The move, he argues, was to stop activists “standing with our lecturers against university management.” This allegation of politically motivated punishments was put to the university by Tribune – but the spokesperson insisted that Stirling “respects the rights of students to make their voices heard… within university regulations.”

But with another year ahead, Stirling activists have great concerns over the lack of critical voices on campus, with many active radical campaigners now shackled by last year’s penalties. Tribune understands that more than half of active Scottish Socialist Party members at the university have disciplinary records, which they claim is “significantly hampering” plans to challenge the administration.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” said Morgan, who will not return to classes until January. “I don’t think there’ll be any radical actions at Stirling Uni after this. People will be terrified, because they won’t want to risk it.” This was echoed by Caulfield, who called for his fellow occupier to be returned to classes immediately. “The heavy-handed punishment was a tactic to instill fear on campus,” he said. “There is no reason to punish people that severely for political action. It is an exceptionally unfair punishment.”

Others remain optimistic. Lauren, who – despite her suspension – will return for her second year this month, told Tribune that despite the negative impact, many are still keen to get involved with political organising. “Students were outraged about what happened,” she said. “We expected to be fined, but nobody would dream the university would be as heavy handed as they were.

“While pandemic is going to make it challenging, with the current state of the world, people are realising the importance of solidarity. We hope to have a lot of people ready to fight for change. They don’t call it a struggle for nothing.”