On Wednesday, 25 March, students from King’s College London (KCL) occupied the Council Room, chosen for its significance as the traditional meeting place of our university’s most senior decision-making body: the College Council. In a coordinated and decisive swoop, the ‘entry team’ secured the room with much excitement – and were greeted by tall windows and portraits of the Duke of Wellington and his descendants, who to this day remain the chair of our College Council.
Our first move was to form a barricade. After security gave assurances that they would not try to force entry, we opened doors and held our first general assembly with 40 students where we discussed our principles, wider aims and objectives. Using consensus decision-making we agreed on five overarching aims: democratisation of King’s, including the transparency of administrative decisions; the support of free education; the rights of workers within the university system; increased support for enhanced accessibility and the liberation of marginalised groups; and the need for a renewed focus on KCL’s ethical investment policy.
The widespread sense of dissatisfaction and disengagement that many students and staff at our university feel is not limited to our university alone. Our occupation, operating under the banner of the ‘Free University of London’, came in the wake of similar actions undertaken by our fellow students at the London School of Economics (LSE) and University of the Arts London (UAL). The day after we occupied, Goldsmiths joined this movement and around the world students are emphatically demanding an accessible education, calling for free education, and defending the rights of university workers in the face of the increasing financialisation of higher education.
Since establishing the Free University of London at King’s, we’ve been putting on diverse daily timetables, including workshops with representatives from marginalised communities and campaigns at King’s. These workshops are informing our demands and we aim to use this occupation to accelerate positive change in areas where students and staff are disadvantaged and, in many cases, suffering.
We did not release our demands immediately, a decision that has met with some criticism and confusion. We have taken this approach to ensure we develop the most inclusive, representative and democratic process of formulating demands. Most importantly, we have had a constant daily flow of over 200 students who actively participate in a stimulating and democratic process, helping shape our key principles and specific demands. We have been positively overwhelmed with messages of solidarity (including from staff), not to mention the constant stream of food, sleeping equipment and other generously provided supplies. We wish to express particular gratitude to the kind folk of the chapel, who frequently pop next to the Council Room with tea, oranges and other goodies.
While the college has taken steps in improving problems of disengagement, we’ve seen and heard very clearly over the course of the occupation that these steps have not been enough, and there’s still huge portions of our community that feel under-represented. The occupation has shown that alternative forms of dialogue between the university body and the administration are available, in which the perceived divide of hierarchies and an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality can be diminished.
Yesterday we delivered our provisional list of demands and statement of intent in person to principal Ed Byrne and members of his executive team as part of a care package that included an Occupy KCL poster and a red felt square to wear in solidarity. As a result of this we have entered into negotiations to host an open forum from within our occupation this week, with the principal and his team in attendance. If this goes ahead, it would provide a valuable opportunity to open clear dialogue between all sections of the university – the students, the staff, and the administration – in which everyone speaks as equals to address the problems that have created such disillusionment around the higher education system.
We will keep all updated on the progress of the open forum, and we want to ensure that as wide and inclusive range of students are in attendance. The point of establishing Free University of London at KCL was to allow for these alternative forms of discussion and debate, and inclusion is one of our most important aims.
Our set of provisional demands is open to amendment and addition, subject to our on-going consultations with students and appropriate groups. We are here because we care about a free, accessible and compassionate education system, and believe the occupation is an important step to achieve such a system.