Guardian Professional, Wednesday 11 December 2013 11.37 GMT
Luke Martell, professor of political sociology, University of Sussex
Student protest should be encouraged. How managements respond to it is about the sort of university you have in the first place. When choices are made about the university’s future, staff, students and their unions should be meaningful citizens and partners. At the moment consultation takes the form of surveys or Q&A sessions about decisions already made. It’s inevitable people look for other ways to make their voices heard.
When procedures feel rigged it’s no wonder people resort to action outside governance structures. Managers should respond to protestors by talking to them. Disciplinary procedures shouldn’t be a substitute for dialogue. Managements should be accountable when things go wrong for the university and good relations collapse. Governing bodies should be ready to act. An open, participatory university is the best response to protest.
Dr Gopalkrishna Chetty, special advisor to the vice-chancellor, Durban University of Technology
As an academic and administrator at a South African university, I can safely say that student protest politics is to be cherished. It is a time for students to really express what they believe in and stand for while growing up in a learning environment. Of course this does not detract that these protests may get out of hand and elements within the student groups may want to resort to violent behaviour.
University administrators should certainly learn to negotiate rules governing protests action with student leadership and have this in place ahead of any protest action. This will contribute to minimizing the groups that wish to pursue a more violent of form of protest or demonstrate behaviour that would in ordinarily be unacceptable to society at large. Above all administrators should learn to engage and keep the channels of communication with protesting students and their leaders.
Retired academic who wishes to remain anonymous
It’s notable that the institutional response to current student protest is led, at least at Sussex and London, by a senior administrator. This reflects a broader change in the management of universities. The university that used to employ me had a fair amount of student unrest, to which the response in my time was always led by the vice-chancellor who would address student meetings, talk to student occupiers, and generally speak for the university. This didn’t make problems go away, but it took the edge off the crisis, gave the protestors a sense that they were being heard (and they were!), and paved the way to honourable resolutions.
A university’s registrar cannot do this: he (almost always a he) doesn’t have credibility or sympathy with students, will not be willing or able to get into a direct dialogue with protestors, and will typically have a counter-productively punitive attitude to the whole business. Collegiality may be an unpopular word in modern university management, but collegiality beats top-down management of universities.
Louise Hazan, campaigns and communications manager, People & Planet
Students must have the right to peaceful protest on their campuses. This week’s global outpouring of respect for Nelson Mandela makes today’s protests all the more significant. Let’s not forget that student-led protests and campaigns played a key role in supporting Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. It is this resurgent student protest movement, on issues ranging from fees and cuts to fossil fuel divestment and workers’ rights, which is now under threat.
As a campaigner with one of the UK’s largest student activist networks, People & Planet, I receive regular reports from students about increasingly harsh and violent policing and intimidation tactics from their campus security services. The punitive suspensions, bizarre bail conditions and mass arrests students have faced in recent weeks represents a complete lack of foresight from university managers and serves only to recruit more students to their causes.
Students want better representation of their views throughout their institutional structures and are willing to engage positively and constructively to this end. Instead of seeking to suppress this critical engagement with the key issues of our time – from climate change to liberalisation – vice-chancellors should welcome and encourage their input. Isn’t that what their institutions were founded to do?
John Parkinson, associate professor of public policy, University of Warwick
Part of the reason why there has been an eruption of old-fashioned confrontation is that protestors have wised up to efforts to control them through managed negotiation and refuse to play ball. The response from the authorities has been entirely counter-productive, and has led to punches, batons and pepper spray.
A much more effective response is to come out of the ivory tower and sit and engage with students on their own terms in their own spaces. How many registrars, let alone vice-chancellors, sit down on the floor with their students in tents and occupation sites and just talk, just listen? I have, and it’s fantastic – one gets to engage with serious people who care passionately about the world, ideas, evidence, and knowledge, and the conversations are so often better than one gets in a seminar room.
University management has become far too remote from that daily experience of talk and debate. It needs to sit down, person to person, and converse.
Robert Williams, political ethnography PhD student, University of Huddersfield
University officials are remiss for not adding their voices to campus protests. A united outcry should focus upon the plight of the nation’s tax victims, who continue to pay enormous taxes originally earmarked for higher education but are now directed to other quadrants of government. How can a case be made for universities as taxpayer-supported public goods when the government takes that tax money and spends it elsewhere?
Students are told to pay their own way, while taxpayers are forced to continue tax payments. As a famous scouser once put it: «I smell a rat». The best way to help everyone concerned is to remove all government barriers to freedom in higher education and abolish taxation in the name of higher education. As the Brown paper noted, consumers of higher education would be better served by institutions concerned with attracting students as consumers rather than disregarding their needs in favour of politically jostling for limited government funding.
Adam Crymble, history PhD student, King’s College London
Please don’t call them students. They’re Marxist political activists. They no more represent we, the students of the University of London, than the trainer and iPhone-grabbing rioters of 2011 represented the people of Britain. Students fall on all sides of the political spectrum. Our youth does not inherently make us socialists, and while many of us sympathise with some of the University of London Union demands, intimidating staff and fellow students with picket lines and sit-ins undermines the collegial and accepting environments our universities seek to foster.
I hope universities will stand firm against a loud left-wing minority and engage instead with democratically elected student governments that reflect our political diversity. Our universities must also ensure that avenues are available for dissenting voices to civilly express their opinions and concerns. None of those avenues need include responding to intimidation or demands by minorities. Yelling louder does not give you the moral high ground.
Sukhvir Gill, higher education law solicitor
The recent suspensions of students following various university protests has highlighted that, when a university decides to discipline students in accordance with their disciplinary regulations, two fundamentals are important. Firstly, the university should follow their own regulations (which should be clear and fair). Secondly, the regulations provide a sufficient mechanism for unilateral decisions to be challenged. These are the fundamental principles of any just society.
Singling out a few students to suspend with immediate effect is only going to further alienate your population and unite them in their cause. My experience in higher education law has shown all too often that universities respond to on campus events in a reactionary manner. They can fail to diligently consider their internal regulations and in turn fail to ensure that what they are doing is in accordance with their own policies.
I have too often come across regulations that allow vice-chancellors, university councils, registrars, university secretaries to exercise certain powers, but then no clear provision being put in place to allow for that power to be challenged. Some can fail to even follow the procedures set out in their own regulations and by the time such improper decisions are reviewed or overturned students have suffered significantly.
Sophie van der Ham, welfare officer, University of Sussex students union
When protest occurs, it shows that there is a breakdown in university procedures for consultation. Protest is a way of influencing when all other avenues have been shut down. It needs to be recognised as being legitimate and requires universities to listen to students and staff and come to a compromise. Administering «precautionary» suspensions without evidence, such as the ones at Sussex, only serves to heighten a feeling of mistrust and not being listened to.
Through dialogue with student protesters and engagement with the students union prior to any disciplinary action, universities can take the lead on creating a true partnership with students and staff. True partnership does not mean forums with no communicable change afterwards but real results that are tangible for the community.
We need to start exploring the meaning of democratic universities – with meaningful involvement of the community in decision-making. This form of governance will hold senior leaders accountable to their communities and enable them to make decisions that the communities are invested in.
Toyin Agbetu, founder of Ligali, a pan-African human rights organisation
Universities can best engage with student politics by ensuring that the student body once organised and unified beyond a certain threshold, has a legitimate mechanism to dismiss those on the senior management team or at least compel them to re-apply for their post.
Students are the key stakeholders in any university making vice-chancellors the equivalent of CEOs. Yet, where teaching staff are selected and fired on their academic ability, administrative members of staff are often immune to any outside questioning of their ability or indeed, moral integrity. Just as parents are present on the governing bodies of schools, patients on hospital governing bodies, students should be involved in any interviewing or disciplinary process and have representatives with the power to influence appraisals and budgets.
Many may ask: what do students know about running multimillion pound institutions? That’s not the point. Just as the people of Thailand were able to force Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra to dissolve parliament following a public vote of no confidence, if vice-chancellors knew they could lose their jobs when ignoring the concerns of those they are ultimately supposed to serve, perhaps they just might listen to student issues and seek collaborative compromise instead of fire.
Add your thoughts on how universities should facilitate and engage with student protests in the comments below.