Liberate the University: who they are, what they want, and what they’re going to do

Liberate the University actively campaigns against turning universities into financial entities

The failure of universities to take adequate action in this time of crisis has been revelatory to students regarding the ways universities function. Students have begun to question the motives of our universities and Covid-19 was a wake-up call.

It seems that higher education institutions have only profit and reputation in mind when making decisions for students and when issuing guidance on what to do during the pandemic. However, this is the product of a longstanding issue — universities now function primarily as financial entities.

Liberate the University (LTU) is a grassroots organisation led by students across the UK determined to hold universities accountable and reform the way students receive their education. Its first base was set up in London but now has expanded to other cities such as Nottingham. To quote their constitution, “Liberate the University believes in free education as part of a democratic, public education system: run by workers, students and the community; accessible; with a liberatory curriculum.”

Essentially, LTU aims to regain the power lost by members of universities when universities started shielding decision-making processes behind a web of bureaucracy and sophisticated titles. LTU believes that universities should be transparent in how they function, allowing their operations to be accessible to all. They also vehemently reject the idea of universities as private financial institutions as the marketisation of our education leads to only exploitation.

LTU is not afraid to take direct action; perhaps the most famous campaign of theirs was their pre-Covid occupation of UCL’s Southern Cloisters. This was a stand against the “casualisation” of education and the lack of protection that students and staff are offered within UCL. Initially, universities offered defined benefits and securities, but this has devolved into a slamming workload for academics and insufficient pay. This is especially relevant to teaching assistants undergoing their postgraduate degrees, as often they work unpaid hours and are paid measly wages. 

Leo Peace, direct action coordinator of LTU, said: “universities are essentially becoming a microcosm for the broader world.”

Provosts are pocketing wages eight times larger than lecturers and nineteen times larger than PGTAs, even though the digitalization of our education due to the pandemic was primarily done by PGTAs and academics. Research leave has been cancelled and yet students were encouraged to return to accommodation so that universities could still pocket rent. The no-detriment policies rolled out by some universities don’t even achieve the bare minimum; for instance, UCL has only lowered grade boundaries by 1 per cent despite the suffering mental health of students. This goes to show that the universities do not have the interests of students and staff at heart.

Liberate the University has recently launched a new campaign with five core demands.

1. Students should be reimbursed for fees and rent. Considering that universities promised contact hours but cut all in-person contact except for a few degrees, students should be offered a refund. 

2. LTU demands a full higher-education bailout by the government, tying in with their philosophy that universities should not function as businesses if their primary interest is to educate. This ensures all other demands are funded. 

3. There should be an end to the hostile environment policy and the hyper-securitization of campuses across the UK. Universities should be safe environments that foster growth and learning as opposed to places that continue to harbour racist and discriminatory border policies that disproportionately affect minority groups. 

4. Job and course cuts should end. This is a pertinent issue for smaller universities such as SOAS, which have faced severe course cuts with minimal communication to students and no financial transparency. Students were informed that their courses had been cut after they had enrolled and accepted offers, and were forced to switch courses. There is clearly funding, but it is being put into the pockets of university officials instead of being reinvested into our education.

5. A student-staff Covid-19 council should be formed. Students have been trapped in halls with appalling living conditions and are forced to be in close contact with those that live near them, even if they are immunocompromised. There have been cases of mould, broken utilities, and pests. Additionally, staff have to face the constant fear of being fired whilst transitioning their entire syllabus online. It seems bizarre that a small group of executives not directly facing these struggles get to make decisions when students and staff have no say. Universities must once again be democratized and stop functioning on behalf of corporate interests. 

Leo Peace said: “Our focus is on making sure that members know exactly where power lies, rather than pretending to be horizontalist. Our organised, democratic committee structure, clear radical demands, and focus on direct action sets us apart from other organisations.

Many student organizations promised horizontality but students were pushed into leadership positions with no elections, not giving everyone a fair chance. LTU is election-based and most decisions are made through voting. They are also transparent with finances. This gives students real power over the organization, even just as members.

LTU has recently created a petition with its five demands recently and it has garnered the attention of students across the UK. The issue is that not all demands can be accomplished without the government bailout, which makes it perhaps the most crucial demand of all.

Isaac Hanson said: “the money is there, we know it’s there,” and now students must wait and see if the government will take steps to fund and subsidise our education. However, the government has already ignored student pleas to recompensate them — a petition with nearly half a million signatures was disregarded, which is an indictment to the lack of mobility students have under this system of operation. On the other hand, as the Covid-19 crisis develops, the pressure to aid students increases exponentially, and governmental inaction can only last for so long.

What can students do now? Covid-19 has been eye-opening for us and we find ourselves aware of the injustices we face every day. We understand now that historically, students have been treated poorly ever since tuition fees were introduced in 1988 at £1,000 and then hiked in 2004 to £3,000 and again in 2011 to £9,000. Furthermore, international students have been neglected and left to fend for themselves despite paying up to £27,000 in fees.

Student anger is growing, as exemplified by the increase in rent strike groups and student organisations. We now know that universities are systematically designed in a way that prevents students from enacting broader change — this is done by creating a long and vague chain of command and fewer direct points of liaison between students, staff, and management. Upon asking LTU members what could be done next, they mentioned the expansion of student organizations creating added pressure on the universities and government and some campaigns are in the works for when it is safer to act directly.

The Tab asked: “what would you say to a newly-radicalized student looking to make a change,” Isaac Hanson, leader of LTU, replied, “Join LTU. Open a branch at your university. Come to meetings — we’re so excited to have you. Your voice will be heard.”