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What is a university? Who is the University? These are increasingly pressing questions, questions that appear – not abstract, theoretical – but concrete, actual, determining. Indeed, in asking these questions we refer not merely to ideas but to an ongoing, living and lived struggle occurring here on our campus. More specifically, this struggle has taken the form of an escalating conflict over who controls the spaces of campus, who is allowed to use them, and how they are able to use them.
The recent redevelopment of campus colleges and bars has frequently angered students and staff. Confronted not only with the incompetence of managers (e.g. the Underpass, theSantanderepisode, the flooding that has resulted from building works), but also with their arrogant disregard for the needs and desires of students and staff, people have rightly been asking: ‘Who decides?’ This is not only a ‘technical issue’, but a political one – and one which strikes at the heart of the idea of ‘the university’. For, it begs the question: is the University a community of students, lecturers and staff, or is it an assemblage of impersonal bureaucracy and fixed capital?
It is in this context that it is necessary to understand a new tactic being increasingly employed by the managerial caste: refusing room bookings for left-wing student groups. Again, this is not a ‘technical issue’, but rather a direct and explicit attack on those who object to the University’s current trajectory, by barring leftist students from University spaces.
If this claim seems disproportionate, it is worth remembering that the managers of our university have a history of attacking the left – from anti-communist witch-hunts in the early 1970s through to the prosecution of the ‘George Fox 6’ in 2005. With this in mind, when a group of disgruntled PhD students came together in 2009 to discuss taking action against atrocious postgraduate Teaching Assistant working conditions, we were cautious of provoking reprisals. But, it was still a surprise to us when, in 2010, whilst trying to book rooms for the highly popular ‘University in Crisis?’ lecture series, one booking was refused. The rationale behind this refusal was explicitly political; we received an email explaining that rooms ‘must not be used for political party meetings unless organised through the auspices of a society affiliated to LUSU or to the University’. The series was almost over; it had involved students and lecturers; it had not (to our disappointment?) sparked a spontaneous uprising, nor even spontaneous littering. But, the bureaucracy had decided to shut us up.
Some time has passed since then, but recent events have proved that the old ways die hardest. Last term, an innocuous film series run by Lancaster University Against Cuts (LUAC) was deliberately disrupted by management, who repeatedly refused three different people bookings. When the screening went ahead anyway security was sent down. Soon after this another student had a room booking cancelled after the event was advertised on Lancaster University Against the Arms Trade’s Facebook wall. The reason given for this was that students are ‘not allowed to book rooms for political groups’. If this open policing of student politics is not concerning enough, another worrying aspect of this incident was that it revealed that Facebook pages were being monitored by security. A further incident occurred in Week 12 when a room booked for a talk called ‘Exploring the Arms Trade’, organised by Lancaster University Against the Arms Trade and the Richardson Institute for Peace Studies, had its booking cancelled. On this occasion the explanation given was that ‘the arms trade is a controversial topic and the usual protocol is to inform the security office’.
Put together, these incidents demonstrate an open attempt by managers and security to monitor University space and block leftist groups from organising events on campus; explicit statements to the effect that LU security has the ultimate power to decide what is and is not appropriate subject matter for lectures on campus; and an extension of this discipline on to the internet, where someone is watching ‘subversive’ Facebook groups, making notes, filing reports.
To describe this situation as ‘concerning’ is an understatement – particularly for those students who are involved. Leftists on campus are not only being excluded from campus space, but actively criminalised by a management and security force that have transposed hostility towards progressive political activity into official policy.
In the face of this attack, progressive students and lecturers on campus need to come together to support each other against this – as we are beginning to. We’re not going to simply take this on the chin. A warning to the managers: step carefully. In deliberately setting out to antagonise us, you are producing your own enemies.