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Notes from a student occupation

Tabitha Troughton reports from the occupation at UCL

December 9, 2010
4 min read

Photo: Oscar Webb

Matt’s a maths genius; sweet and helpful, too. He’s never had anything to do with politics, but now he’s occupying the Jeremy Bentham room at University College London, and hasn’t been home for a week. He joined the student march last Tuesday and was walking peacefully at the front when the police horses charged. In the ensuing panic, his girlfriend was knocked down and trampled. “I love her very much, that’s partly why I’m here.”

Paul left school at 16; at 25, he finally got to UCL to study engineering. The friends he left behind him, in Stoke, have mainly joined the army; there are few other jobs around. “One of my mates was discharged because he just started crying. He never leaves the house now. And he’s still crying, he doesn’t even know why.”

Amanda, an English student, is bright, passionate, hoarse with talking. She’s never done anything like this, she’s been scared and cold, and also amazed and proud. Around her, all life is present: students with dreadlocks, students in tweeds and barbours, serious dandies, energetic punks, sporty types, the poor, the rich, the geeks. They’ve just been joined by students at the Slade School of Art, who inhabit a wing of UCL’s main building, and whose banner display proclaiming protest is a work of art in itself. “Our lecturers all put money in to buy us food” says a girl inside. She sways on her feet. “I’m sorry, I’m so tired. No-one’s had any sleep.”

Across the capital, across the country, students are still occupying their universities. Nineteen universities, in fact: from the red bricks of Manchester to the old stones of Edinburgh; from the University of East London to Cambridge. Some, like the students at SOAS, have been issued with court orders, but are preparing for the bailiffs and refusing to be moved. On Friday, UCL and the Slade heard that their joint court case, due that day, had been postponed until the following week, thanks to the strength of their defence. Smudged, exhausted faces were breaking into smiles of relief; people were hugging; euphoria bubbling around the room. “We can make it through to Thursday!”

Today is that Thursday. Parliament is voting on tuition fees, and the UK’s students are planning to march again. Inside UCL messages of support were coming in from students across Europe: in Greece, they’d just marched on the British embassy. “You’re doing this for all of us,” a visitor tells the room, and the students know it. Around the walls, neatly written notes underscore the wider economic issues, from the billions spent on wars to the relative wages of cleaners. Outside in the quad, chalked, washable graffiti pleads for education, for justice. “Save UCL”, someone has added, in capitals. “Education is Life Itself.”

“What motivates students?” a UCL lecturer is asking, on his website. “What keeps them going despite the cold nights, sleep deprivation, and legitimate fear of putting their education in jeopardy?”. To which one could add the legal and financial threats, the fear of violence, the smears in the press, and the viciousness which spatters the comments sections. “They’ve obviously got a lot of time on their hands,” one PhD student suggests. “I don’t support them,” says another. “Although to be fair,” he adds, “mine isn’t a popular point of view. I just don’t see the alternative.”

In the tidy, bustling room behind him, two hundred or so people are planning, studying, organising, agreeing. No-one is a leader; all decisions are taken by consensus and no-one looks left out. A guest arrives to give a talk on Haiti, a man from the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate brings stories of resistance to EDL violence. Representatives from other occupations drop in, lecturers visit to teach, the media appear to report. And in the middle of it all are people standing up for the future, for the general good, for arts and humanities, for the poor, for choices. “Oh, they are very peaceful,” says one of UCL’s private security guards, cheerfully.

Outside it’s getting dark. Snow glints in the almost deserted quad; a long line of glasses, filled with wax, testifies to an earlier candlelit vigil. “You can win this,” a speaker is telling the students, but winning is not the only issue here. Whatever happens next, this is, as the UCL lecturer concludes, quite an extraordinary, human adventure.

Some names have been changed. This article also appears in today’s Morning Star

More info and latest news: blog.ucloccupation.com

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