On July 21st 2014, the University of Birmingham disciplined three students for their role in a Defend Education Birmingham occupation of the University Senate Chamber in November 2013. Two students were suspended for nine months, while the third was given a formal reprimand and warned of suspension if they break any university regulation in the next six months. In its public statement on the suspensions, the University insists that the occupation caused “significant disruption” to students and staff. Further, the University claims a “duty of care” to all students and staff, which includes ensuring that studying and work activities can continue. The disciplining of these three students is justified as a punishment for disrupting the flow of everyday university life.
For students at Birmingham and the wider student movement though, the punishments are “disproportionate and draconian” and the entire discipline process perceived as biased against the students. Allegedly denied legal representation and access to the disciplinary panel’s minutes, the students assert that the disciplinary decisions have failed to use the evidentiary standards required in court, instead making decisions on the basis of probabilities. University management are also said to have intervened in the disciplinary process to recommend one expulsion and longer suspensions for the students. Students also claim that similar actions have previously attracted less serve punishments. Instead of receiving comparable punishments to previous cases, these students have allegedly been singled out and victimised for their role in organising and engaging in protest against the University. The punishments are perceived as unreasonable overreactions to mainly peaceful protests, and further as attacks on students’ rights to free speech and protest on campus. For students, this is an attempt to stop student protest.
The disciplinary process and the punishments are perceived as attacks on free speech and dissent on campus by students. They argue that the University of Birmingham is trying to stop further protest by excessively punishing the supposed ringleaders of protest and so discourage future rebels and activists. The students could well be correct in their analysis. Since the tuition fee protests in 2010, British campuses have seen a resurgence of student protest, sometimes with staff support, against the marketization and privatisation of the public university. University authorities (including most recently Birmingham, Sussex and the University of London) and the police have responded with repressive and restrictive actions. Between injunctions against specific types of, and even all protest, threats of suspension and expulsion for involvement, restrictive bail terms, and violent police actions during protests, students face serious consequences for engaging in protest. For social movement theorists, repression of social movements by authorities involves increasing the costs of protest activity with the intention of curbing protest activity (see Earl, 2013, ‘Repression and Social Movements’ in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Social and Political Movements). In opting for more restrictive responses, both universities and the police have indicated an intention of quelling dissent on campus by disincentivizing protest and activism. If protesting course closures, job losses and cuts to facilities becomes too risky, because the consequences threaten students’ university studies and potentially their careers, then it seems likely that there will be a drop in protest activity.
However, the University of Birmingham’s attempt to punish disruption and disincentivize further dissent has back fired. The suspensions have provoked further resistance, not acquiescence, by acting as a new injustice to moblise students against the University. A (now evicted) occupation of Strathcona Building was quickly mobilised to protest the discipline decisions. Students have framed the suspensions as injustices and attacks on the right to protest and free speech on the University campus, thus legitimising their further protest as a means of objecting to unfair punishments for protests and to perceived attempts to curtail student activism.
Repressive authoritarian responses to protest by university administrations followed by further direct action, often more militant action, by student activists is nothing new on British campuses. This is a well-worn path of response and counter-response stemming for the late sixties, when universities tried to use injunctions and their own disciplinary processes to curb, even remove, protest ringleaders to prevent widespread disruption and dissent. Calling in the police to handle demonstrations and evict occupations is also not new. Although typically described as motivated by concerns about public image and ensuring that university life continues to function for non-protesting members, university responses are understood by students as attacks on their rights to protest and free speech. Framed in this manner, these injustices become powerful mobilising tools that frequently see large numbers of students participating in subsequent protests (for a short time at least) as students raise their objections to university actions and decisions deemed unreasonable and unfair in relation to protest on campus. Repressive actions have tended, as at Birmingham in the last week, to provoke further action amongst student activists.
The general process has remained the same since the late sixties, but a tactical shift appears to have taken place at some universities. Previous university administrative generations sought to handle protest activity internally, using disciplinary processes sparingly (although just as draconianly to punish alleged ringleaders) with police involvement as a last resort. In this recent wave of protest, universities appear to have been quicker to seek legal and police involvement and to use internal processes to punish participants. They have opted for more repressive measures over negotiations (which students have demanded) or finding ways to operate around protest activity (a tactic used by the University of Manchester in response to occupations in the seventies and eighties). Why this new tactical trend has emerged, its impact on campus dissent, and if it will spread to other universities within Britain and transnationally, will need further research and consideration if (as) it continues. While the university is famously supposed to be a site of learning, critical thinking and dissent, it seems that university management are increasingly worried by and unwilling to tolerate student criticism and protest against them. It is possible that campus may become a less friendly space for student criticism and dissent if universities continue with this tactical trend.