Rather than listening to the concerns of workers and students, more and more universities are responding by surveilling and trying to stop activism in their ranks.

University of Liverpool staff and supporting students take part in a rally as strike action hits universities on 24 November 2022 in Liverpool, England. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Back in November, as the first round of national strike action by university staff began, an email from the head of the Sheffield Institute of Education appeared to ask students to report striking lecturers. In a tweet, Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and Colleges Union (UCU), said universities asking students to ‘grass’ on their lecturers was an example of how ‘rattled’ management are by strike action. Hallam were swiftly joined by Queen Mary’s University London also asking students to report striking staff via an online form.

It wasn’t the first time Hallam had tried tactics like this. In 2019, the university sparked outrage after they emailed out a form to students titled ‘Industrial action: record of teaching activities not taking place’. Last year rent strike activists also found the university had kept pages of records on an organiser’s online and real-life activity. In the interests of transparency, that organiser was me. This article contains stories of similar harassment.

Activists like me, used to being on the receiving end of universities’ anger, are no longer surprised at these kinds of revelations. Hallam’s treatment of those engaged in struggle at the university—students and workers alike—is shameful, but no exception: they follow a broader trend of higher education institutions becoming increasingly hostile to union and student activism. While more than happy to have radical politics discussed in seminars, university managers across the country get uncomfortable, even hostile, when those politics are put into action.

In an FOI request submitted by the Daily Express last year, 31 universities admitted to monitoring students’ social media activity. ‘I long ago ceased to be shocked by VCs’ utter venality and moral bankruptcy. What happened at Leicester last year is just another instance of university leaders’ descent into authoritarianism,’ says David Harvie, a former Associate Professor at the University of Leicester and former Communications Officer of its UCU branch. Harvie tells me that through Data Subject Access Requests he and colleagues found that for ‘at least several months’ in 2021, the University of Leicester’s senior management employed an external PR agency which monitored staff social media accounts, and that some staff were threatened with disciplinary action for criticising planned redundancies online. The University of Leicester did not respond to a request for comment.

2020 similarly saw student rent strike organisers at the University of Manchester having their tweets watched by the Vice Chancellor, while security staff produced CCTV reports on activists’ whereabouts on campus. In December 2021, a student occupying a University of Manchester building was left in A&E by a security guard.

In early 2022, students occupying at the University of Sheffield reported having had their possessions withheld by security, including one student whose bag included their insulin, until they identified themselves. The University of Sheffield security were also reported to be locking the fire exits of occupied buildings in November after students reclaimed the Hicks Building in solidarity with the UCU.

What all this punitive action points to is universities’ contempt for what they consider the ‘wrong’ sort of activism. ‘Universities love the right kind of activists,’ says S, a current PhD candidate who was a student activist at a prominent Russell Group university. ‘They love someone who would espouse their brand while gently pushing for change. They want a smiling face with a chiding finger, someone willing to close their eyes to wilful harm and willing to accept crumbs. They want sanitised activism. I was that person, or at least looked like it. And the minute I wasn’t, for one second, they decided I was Judas.’

S says their activism was ‘very milquetoast divestment and antiracist pressure.’ ‘I was happy to keep working with the university and make “change from within”, whatever that means. But the anti-war and anti-arms dealer funding stuff made them lose their taste for me as it hit them in the wallet.’ After graduating, S says they submitted a Data Subject Access Request to their university and discovered that senior management had gossiped about them, in one case calling them a ‘cunt’.

Painting activists as the ‘bad guys’ feeds into universities’ justification for victimising them. ‘The easiest thing about painting someone as a troublemaker is that anything they say, anything they face as a result of “making trouble” can be dismissed,’ continues S. ‘As in, it was my decision to cause trouble, and any fallback is obviously thus my fault … You start internalising that after a point and it really tears you up inside. The label also individualises you to a degree convenient for institutions: it’s a person to dislike and focus their disregard on, rather than a movement.’ This has proved so effective that universities have been repeatedly emboldened to push things further.

Last year, students who occupied SOAS management’s office over nine days said they were prevented from accessing toilets; if they did, they were not allowed back into the occupied space. At midnight on 3 March, they woke up to bailiffs entering the building through a balcony—and breaking a window in the process—who then physically removed them from the building.

C was a student taking part in that occupation. They believe that the government’s treatment and rhetoric around protestors has set an example for universities to follow. ‘There’s definitely a parallel between the way that universities are responding and the government’s legislative changes in terms of delineating what is and what isn’t legitimate protest,’ they say. ‘You could even look at the way the hostile environment and Prevent have become normalised as part of teaching.’ After the occupation, the Students’ Union bar which had been daubed with years of political graffiti and stickers by previous students was whitewashed at the behest of management.

Historically, universities have been places for dissent to be voiced and organising to take place, but C worries that that is disappearing. The answer, for them, is to connect the struggles in universities to those taking place in wider society. ‘Talking about this stuff renews the need to organise and fight back against university bosses. The fight for universities needs to be taking place alongside other, broader struggles against repressive anti-protest measures, police violence, and anti-union laws because they’re getting away with it at the moment.’

Today, as the UCU continues its industrial action, what is clear that those involved in organising—both workers and students—care deeply about where they teach and study. As S puts it: ‘the worst part of it is that I still adore that university, to some extent. You have to, to want it to change that badly.’ Strikes and protests happen precisely because activists want to see a better university system that values those within it—and Vice Chancellors would do well to remember that.

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