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This profile looks at how students at the University of the West of England (UWE) undertook direct action in protest against the British government's cuts to educational funding in the higher education sector. Situating the in the broader context of the struggle against cuts to education, the authors observed the organisation of students, interviewing them and holding focus groups to get a full picture of the growth of the movement and the UWE occupation. The profile considers the motivations of participants, the impact participation had on individuals and explains the effectiveness of the occupation in a number of aspects. The research found that the occupation played an important role in the broader anti-cuts movement, in publicising the cuts agenda and mobilising resistance against it.
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Social Movement Studies
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The UWE Student Occupation
Lee Salter a & Jilly Boyce Kay b
a Department of Screen, Media and Journalism, University of the
West of England, Bristol, UK
b Department of Media, Film and Journalism, De Montfort
University, Leicester, UK
Available online: 22 Nov 2011
To cite this article: Lee Salter & Jilly Boyce Kay (2011): The UWE Student Occupation, Social
Movement Studies, 10:4, 423-429
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2011.614112
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PROFILE
The UWE Student Occupation
LEE SALTER* & JILLY BOYCE KAY
**
*Department of Screen, Media and Journalism, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK, **Department of
Media, Film and Journalism, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK
ABSTRACT This profile looks at how students at the University of the West of England (UWE)
undertook direct action in protest against the British government’s cuts to educational funding in the
higher education sector. Situating the in the broader context of the struggle against cuts to
education, the authors observed the organisation of students, interviewing them and holding focus
groups to get a full picture of the growth of the movement and the UWE occupation. The profile
considers the motivations of participants, the impact participation had on individuals and explains
the effectiveness of the occupation in a number of aspects. The research found that the occupation
played an important role in the broader anti-cuts movement, in publicising the cuts agenda and
mobilising resistance against it.
KEY WORDS: Student movement, UWE occupation, activism, cuts protests
We investigated a specific case study of a university occupation [at the University of the
West of England (UWE)] to illustrate the manifestation of the 2010 anti-cuts student
movement in a particular context. The empirical research looked at how the movement
originated, how the occupation started, how it connected to the broader movement, how
the physical and intellectual space created by the occupation was used, the networking of
the occupation in the context of the broader movement, its mediation and its evaluation.
The occupation at UWE lasted for over 3 weeks and involved a core of around 30
students with many more operating around the fringe. Our research into the occupation
identified some of the specific problems that were experienced by the students in creating
and defining the purpose of the space. We also consider the importance of previous
experience of activism and protest, and how this shaped and emboldened this particular
action. Also considered are the roles of corporate and social media, and how the
occupation’s relationship with media affected its configuration and development. Rather
than offering possible solutions to the problems and complexities encountered by the
occupiers, this profile seeks to flag up some key issues that might be reflected upon
critically in similar future actions.
The empirical data presented here were gathered in the first instance from observation
of the protest movement, and of the university occupation. The observation allowed us
to gain a hermeneutic insight into the internal dynamics of the movement, and
especially the elements of the movement that may go unnoticed by participants. To gain
1474-2837 Print/1474-2829 Online/11/040423-7 q2011 Taylor & Francis
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2011.614112
Correspondence Address: Lee Salter, Department of Screen, Media and Journalism, University of the West of
England, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol BS16 1QY, UK. Email: lee.salter@uwe.ac.uk
Social Movement Studies,
Vol. 10, No. 4, 423–429, November 2011
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further insight, we conducted a focus group with eight of the occupiers in November
2010, in which they were able to discuss a range of issues identified by the researchers,
as well as those suggested by themselves. Finally, to consider the rationale for
participation, its process and the impact of the movement on those students, we also
conducted open-ended, unstructured, in-depth interviews with 10 of the occupiers
between November 2010 and January 2011. The intention here, and the reason to use
such methods, is not to produce a bureaucratically utilisable ‘guide’ to the movement
that can be used to police it, but to understand the rationale for the movement from
within, whilst presenting an evidence-based reflection on the strengths and weaknesses
of the particular actions.
Context and Origins of the UWE Occupation
The UWE is a large university in Bristol with a staff of approximately 3500 and students
numbering around 30,000. It is a member of the University Alliance group, which
represents ‘business-engaged universities’ that, according to the Alliance, have
‘innovation and enterprise running through everything they do and deliver’ (see
http://www.university-alliance.ac.uk/about/). UWE is based at several campuses across
the region but its main campus is at Frenchay, 4 miles north of Bristol city centre. This is
where the occupation took place.
The occupation at UWE began on 22 November 2010 at 15:00 when a group of students
took over the main cafe-bar area of the University. The initial motivation for the
occupation was University management’s decision to effectively demote up to 80
principal lecturers, readers and professors as part of an ongoing programme of cuts at the
University. A small number of politically aware students had met in bars to discuss a
variety of issues related to the demotion and other cuts as well as broader issues to do with
the purpose of education and the threat of commodification. After the University and
College Union (UCU) voted to go to dispute, one of the students started a Facebook group,
inviting UWE student ‘friends’ to join, pointing to the central role that Facebook would
play as a recruiting and organising tool.
At the same time but separately another student had set about organising a film
screening series at the main campus of UWE, after which students would discuss the issues
raised. There were around 20 people attending the film screenings over a 3-week period.
The sequence of films (The Corporation,The Shock Doctrine and The Take) served as a
consciousness-raising project, spreading ideas and information that students might
otherwise not have been exposed to, and encouraging students to consider the scope of the
issues they faced, with the final film (The Take) intended to inspire students to action. In
the build-up to the occupation, a series of training and preparation events were set up,
though on reflection a male postgraduate occupier felt that the limited access to training
was to have crucial implications for the success of the occupation.
The Facebook group was used to share information and facilitate networking. It grew
quite slowly at first, numbering 50 after 2 weeks. By the time the occupation was
underway, the membership had swelled to 470, peaking at 483, although a large number of
them did not get further involved. This led to a frustration among occupiers that fellow
students were indicating their support for the principles of the resistance but then failing to
commit to, or engage with, the movement in a meaningful, sustained or politically
valuable way.
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The 10 November 2010 national demonstration in London against the tuition fee rises
had also acted a catalyst for the occupation. Almost all of those involved had been
influenced by their participation in the London demonstration, explaining that it had
‘charged them up’, empowering and inspiring them to further action, and giving a sense of
belonging to a wider movement. As such, the occupiers had well-developed and coherent
understandings of the implications that the specific higher education cuts would have for
society—within the context of large-scale cuts to almost every other publicly funded
sector.
The occupiers were not motivated by a sense of self-interest or personal gain. Indeed,
the occupiers themselves would not have been individually affected by the rise in tuition
fees. Rather, their motivations were driven by ethical orientations and a sense of what E. P.
Thompson has termed ‘moral economy’, which pre-existed their involvement in the
occupation. A number of the occupiers had been involved with radical political parties,
pressure groups and other social justice movements outside of University. Some
occupiers, however, had no previous experience of direct action, but their intensely
negative experiences of participating in state political processes had induced them to join
the movement. For example, a number of occupiers were motivated to join by the sense of
betrayal they felt after voting Liberal Democrat in the 2010 general election, and that
party’s subsequent role in formulating and voting through right-wing economic and
educational policies.
The occupiers felt that they could not rely on what they perceived to be self-serving and
somewhat ignorant elected student union officials within and without UWE, who they felt
to be in league with management. Indeed, intensifying dissatisfaction with the National
Union of Students and the UWE Student Union was a key motivating factor for
constructing a space outside the official channels of student politics within which to
strategise, organise and resist.
A Cognitive Praxis
Prior experience of a number of participants in other such spaces (in climate camps,
protests, social movements and previous occupations) gave those who led the taking of the
space the requisite skills and confidence to participate. In an interview a male
postgraduate, ‘Pink’, described how his previous participation in a Palestine solidarity
occupation at UWE had prepared him and given him confidence. This enabled him to take
a lead in occupying the space, drawing on his observations of the previous action. Pink
explained how students from Bristol University acted as ‘legal observers’ during the
taking of the space. This in turn enhanced the Bristol students’ capacity to undertake their
own actions.
The occupation was articulated by key figures as being a strike against the
commodification of education. Therefore, the space taken was intended by some of the
occupiers to become more akin to an education camp, in the tradition of climate camps,
meaning that the space, the processes of decision-making, teach-ins, the discussions and
the material made available in the camp would all be driven to perform political education,
but also, crucially, to demonstrate that another form of education is possible. The notion
that the occupation should become a prototype of non-instrumental education and
learning, to demonstrate an alternative university, was seen as very important by a number
of the occupiers. The experience of the occupation creating a cognitive space became an
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important factor in retaining participants, but also in motivating them and facilitating their
development as activists. Crucially, the occupation welcomed interaction with a range of
related groups and organisations from around Bristol.
As individuals all of the occupiers felt that they had developed as a result of
participation. For some it had a deep personal impact. ‘Yellow’ reported the solidarity that
followed ‘the realization that it was part of something bigger—teach ins, talking to people,
that it wasn’t just people sat around doing nothing but that it would spread the protest
movement and spread information’. Many felt their political consciousness and their
personal—and social—confidence had been greately enhanced, ‘Black’ commented ‘the
actual taking of the space and making a claim to it is an act of resistance in itself and shows
people that resistance is possible and they should get involved. I think we don’t have to
accept [the cuts], we don’t have to take it lying down, we can make an impact’.
The confidence and empowerment drawn from participation proved to be of critical
importance in occupiers’ encounters with both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ students. The space
itself acted as an incubator for ideas and arguments, which the students argued that
universities were becoming less inclined to provide. This drew in non-occupying
students—including those initially ambivalent towards student protest—who recognised
that the occupation provided a forum for political debate and deliberation unavailable
elsewhere. Depending on how tired or flu-ridden the occupiers were, they would engage in
debate with such students—often sustained over some hours—with mixed results. Some
students who were initially sceptical were persuaded of the legitimacy of the occupation’s
aims to the extent that they joined.
However, there remained a frustration within the group that has persisted beyond the
life of the occupation, namely the failure to persuade a critical mass of UWE students to
engage in the movement. This was apparent at the UWE Student Union elections the
following year, with victories for many of the apolitical and incumbent candidates, who
were regarded by the occupiers as collaborators in the raising of fees and cuts to education.
Mediating the Movement
As the occupation aimed to gain public attention for the range of issues at hand, so media
attention was seen as crucial. It is likely that the protests that had taken place on 10
November had stoked corporate media interest in the student movement, largely because it
had resulted in violence. The student fee rises were clearly a topical issue, but sustained
media coverage of protests can be explained, at least in part, through that initial violence.
The UWE occupation certainly started with a rush of media interest. Occupiers sent
well-written press releases to key journalists in the local area explaining the occupation
and offering contacts. Journalists from the local newspaper, the Evening Post, and from
BBC News Bristol attended the occupation for the first few hours; BBC News Bristol ran it
as the main story in its two main evening bulletins, focusing exclusively on the issues and
interviewing students. Subsequently the occupation received good coverage from the
Guardian, and the Times Education Supplement. This initial success seems to have
instilled more confidence in the occupiers, with their actions at UWE, and protests around
Bristol and in London, being covered by Sky News, ITV, ITN, BBC News 24 and a range
of international media.
The occupiers felt it was difficult to sustain the level of corporate news coverage beyond
this initial interest, perhaps because they wanted journalists to focus on the issues and
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debates rather than violence or disturbances—for example in one of the largest Bristol
protests, the local newspaper, the Evening Post, ran with the headline ‘Student protests
cause traffic chaos in Bristol city centre’ (24 November 2010), thus, one expects,
encouraging negative reactions among readers.
The students were angered not only by the coverage of violence, but also by the
selectivity of that coverage. The corporate media’s fixation on the spectacle of violence—
and its attribution to students rather than police—meant that meaningful discussion of the
issues at hand was sacrificed. As one occupier, ‘Purple’, put it, it is ‘not in [the corporate
news media’s] interests to portray [the movement] as something good or to get people
involved, because they are there to support the status quo, they represent you as a mob in
order to get people to think of you as that’. Nevertheless, due to the training sessions run
during the occupation, students had a good knowledge of news media and an
understanding of live broadcasts, attempting to get on camera to give information outside
formal interviews.
Although there was considerable anger with the coverage, the students saw it as part of
the learning process. Specifically, the skewed priorities and structural bias of corporate
news media became increasingly apparent and transparent to the occupiers. There was
consistent frustration with the narrowness of reporting even on the occasions that it
focused on the issues—they were usually constructed simply as university students
protesting against the fee rise. The occupiers pointed out that the marches included
lecturers, school and college students, political activists and other trade unions, yet these
were hardly mentioned in the reports. Furthermore, most felt they were protesting a very
broad set of policies, whereas the media were reducing and simplifying their motivations
for protest to a single issue.
The turn to alternative, or DIY, media activity seemed to correspond with the spread of
occupations and actions around the country. By producing their own media, the occupiers
were able to counter somewhat the hegemonic, reductive and distorting corporate media
narratives about student protest. With this the expected audience began to change. Whilst
corporate media were still seen as important tools with which to contact the general public,
the occupiers realised that other tools would be better suited to other audiences. As Purple
noted, ‘we are the media, we have the cameras and the ways of communicating’. Indeed,
communication outside corporate news became increasingly important as it failed to fairly
represent them, and as the occupiers learned about targeting communication—between
occupations, across activists groups and social movements, and crucially to students
within UWE. For the latter objective, posters and banners within the space of the
occupation became an important element of communication with students. Desks were
laid out with petitions, leaflets and booklets.
Social media were utilised according to the specific capacities of each particular form.
As the occupiers put it in the focus group, ‘different things work differently—Facebook
within UWE, encrypted email lists within the core occupation, Twitter between
occupations, YouTube for wider society’.
The use of social media, and the participation of occupiers in meetings around Bristol
and elsewhere in the country helped to network the occupation. In the first instance, the
UWE occupiers felt they were part of a movement that extended beyond the geographical,
institutional and social boundaries of UWE. A wide range of groups fed into this process,
including the Socialist Workers’ Party, UK Uncut, the Socialist Party, the Bristol and
District Anti-Cuts Alliance and so on. This feeling of connectedness was reinforced by
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messages of solidarity from activists, academics, trade unionists, political parties, groups
and movements, and well-wishers from around the world.
The online presence meant that connections with other occupations could be established
and consolidated very quickly, on occasion facilitated by pre-existing personal
relationships. These connections meant that the UWE occupiers could offer advice to
other occupations, as well as seek it.
Evaluations and Conclusions
The occupation ended after more than 3 weeks on 16 December 2010 as the University
geared down for the winter break. The occupation was re-established for 24 h in the new
year, to support a staff strike, which the staff union, UCU, understood to be a considerable
help to its campaign. In terms of the fees issue, the occupation had few direct instrumental
effects, but had a huge effect on those who participated and seems, as a node in the
network of movements, to have had a significant impact on the anti-cuts movement more
generally—not least in terms of getting people on the demonstrations in the first place, but
also in terms of direct actions. However, it is worth also reflecting on some of the
shortcomings of the occupation.
The issue of how labour was divided within the occupation space was contentious, with
some occupiers taking on far greater roles and responsibilities than others, leading to some
resentment. Similarly, whilst it was clear that there was a genuine desire for the occupation
to be organised on the basis of equality, openness and horizontality, there were clearly key
actors, whose knowledge, experience and personalities positioned them in de facto
leadership roles. However, this issue never threatened to undermine the occupation itself,
but rather was seen as part of the ‘learning curve’, and is identified as something which
may require more explicit discussion in future actions.
The purpose of the space was a bone of contention as the occupation went on. Whilst
some sought to prioritise its use as an education camp, others saw it primarily as a base for
protest—as one occupier, ‘White’, put it, there was a split between those more interested in
‘process’, and those more interested in ‘protest’. A male postgraduate occupier, Green,
suggested that right from the outset there was a lack of clarity about the purpose of the
space. It was initially configured with the expectation of a confrontation with security or
police. The confrontation never occurred, but the space was not immediately rearranged.
As such, its very architecture was predicated on a defensive position that may have
alienated other students. This occupier identified this as part of a wide problem of the
occupation being perhaps too politically aggressive in its relationship with non-occupying
students: ‘We were just battering people with our arguments, which I think were right, but
it needed to be more subtle ... we were seen as the radicals’ new coffee corner rather than
an inclusive alternative educational space.’
On a practical level, some occupiers felt the group’s online presence contributed to this
architectural problem in the sense that occupiers were too focused on Facebook and
YouTube rather than prioritising engagement with students who had physically come into
the space. A consequence of this—and of the more positive camaraderie—was the
emerging exclusivity of the group.
A gender imbalance quite clearly existed in terms of participation. Whilst there were
few visible obstructions to participation, one female occupier felt that the communicative
structure of consensus decision-making privileged males. This imbalance both reflects and
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reproduces hegemonic gender roles, and whilst this was discussed, the gendering of
occupation spaces must be addressed more critically in future.
Another significant issue identified was fatigue—not just physical fatigue, but a
collective sense of exhaustion of action and directionlessness as participants turned to
meet essay deadlines, and especially as winter illnesses came on. This took a personal toll
on many of the occupiers, not just in terms of their participation in the occupation but also
in terms of the progress of their degrees within the institution.
However, despite its shortcomings, the occupation saw the development of a cognitive
experience that transformed those involved. The sense of achievement was palpable
among most participants. This achievement was not direct or instrumental, but was about
how the occupation had led to significant self-development, confidence, knowledge,
insight and ultimately awareness about the breadth of the political situation locally,
nationally and internationally. Moreover, since the occupation, the core activists, most of
who only met at the occupation, have developed strong bonds of friendship and
camaraderie and most have continued to engage in political activism. These ‘strong ties,’
which were consolidated through participating in the high-risk and intensive activism of
the occupation, have continued to inspire and sustain them. The networks established
during the occupation are still being utilised to coordinate actions—notably ongoing
protests against cuts and corporate tax-dodging, international solidarity and further
occupations and actions in solidarity with lecturers. Certainly whilst the occupiers learned
a great deal about the political present as a result of their participation, they also learned a
great deal about organisation and activism. Their reflections on their experience will no
doubt improve the organisation of such actions in future.
Lee Salter is programme leader for journalism at the University of the West of England.
His research focuses on radical and corporate representations of political radicalism in a
variety of contexts.
Jilly Boyce Kay is a PhD candidate at De Montfort University. Her PhD research focuses
on the history of the representation of feminism as an emerging discourse on twentieth
century factual television.
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