A vibrant and wonderful student movement has flowered a the Strathclyde University which has scored two major victories for peace and justice within this month. We at PULSE salute all the students, in particular Strathclyde Stop the War, Action Palestine, and the Strathclyde University Muslim Students Association (SUMSA) for their indispensable work. In today’s excellent guest editorial, Kim Bizzarri, who has himself lead from the front, reports on these successes and the prospects for future.
GLASGOW, February 21 – Students at Strathclyde University won the vote on Thursday to cut the university’s ties with arms manufacturer BAe Systems which supplied components used by the Israeli military in the recent massacre of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
Students win majority support in historic AGM
The vote, which took place in relation to a motion submitted by a group of students to their Union’s General Meeting (AGM) – the student’s highest decision-making body – won with an overwhelming majority of the over 200 students who queued in the union’s corridors and stairs to participate in the event. Such a high student attendance had been unprecedented in any previous AGM, most of which failed in the past 10 years to even reach quorum.
Despite attempts by the Union’s administration to dilute the substance of the motion and have it voted upon by the conservative Student Representative Council (SRC) – who had already rejected a similar popular motion two years earlier given the uncomfortable position it placed the University vis-à-vis its corporate funders – the fervent group of passionate students were successful in galvanising sufficient support amongst their fellows to turn the motion into student policy.
Within weeks of occupying the McCance Building – heart of the University’s administration – the original 60 students involved in the occupation have already gained the support of a sizable number of their fellow students.
Occupation encourages University to take action
With the national media reporting on the new wave of student activism, and with regular updates being posted on occupation.org, the official site centralising information about UK universities in occupation, the Strathclyde student group has been able to spread its message and influence far beyond the university’s walls.
Within hours of starting the peaceful occupation, messages of support were flowing in from students across the UK, and around the world, with some touching declarations of solidarity received directly from Palestinian students closely monitoring the students’ activities.
What followed was a series of exhausting negotiations between the students and the University’s Principle and Secretary to ensure that the occupation would deliver more than just a message of solidarity to the people of Palestine.
By the end of the second day of the occupation, the students achieved a remarkable victory when the Principle agreed to end with immediate effect the university’s purchasing contract with the water-supplying company Eden Springs – whose Israeli-owned parent company has been found to be operating commercial activities in breach of international law within the Occupied Territories.
Following the recent bombings of Palestinian universities by the Israeli army, the Principle also agreed to make 3 scholarships available to Palestinian students from Gaza, pledging to incite other Scottish universities to follow suit and possibly pull resources together for the creation of a Scottish-wide fund.
University denies major R&D funding from the arms industry
As part of the occupation, students also requested that the University cut its ties with the arms industry after discovering that major research contracts were underway between the university’s engineering department and BAe Systems – the UK’s largest arms manufacturer and supplier to the Israeli army of components used in the targeting systems of F-16 fighter-bombers responsible for the killing of Palestinian civilians, including children and women.
Data acquired through Freedom of Information (FoI) requests submitted to the University last year by Strathclyde student and prominent Scottish political figure Tommy Sheridan, revealed that BAe systems invested £7.8 million between 2000 and 2007 in joint research projects with the University’s engineering department. FoIs also revealed that several other companies involved in the arms trade, including BAe subsidiaries, had ties with the University’s research departments – with many of the contracts still under way.
Peter West, Secretary of the University, denied the allegations and confirmed only the existence of one contract between the University and BAe Systems for a total of £5000.
University is to look for alternative and ethical sources of funding
The students will now proceed with the submission of a series of FoIs to the university to verify the exact scale of current investments channelled into the University’s research labs by the arms industry.
Meanwhile, some engineering students at Strathclyde fear that the dissolution of the university’s ties with BAe Systems will impact negatively on the department and their career prospects.
In order to allay these fears, a number of their fellow engineering students supporting the occupation are now encouraging a debate within the department to look at possible alternative channels of funding from non-lethal industries, including green and civil technologies.
The rise of a new wave of student activism
The experience of the Strathclyde students has been an encouraging one that illustrates well the idea of “glocalisation”, a term often used to define how individuals can act on their immediate surroundings to impact on global issues.
Naturally, there are no illusions that the occupation of Strathclyde university, or that of any other UK university, will alone lead to the freedom of Palestine, or that of any other oppressed people. But what students have been successful in achieving so far is the adoption of policies aimed at undermining the structures fuelling the conflict and feeding the oppression.
Through the occupation, students have sent a clear and powerful message of dissociation from any complicity in the suffering of the Palestinian people that might have been brought by their universities’ lack of ethical procurement and funding policies.
With over 25 UK universities having gone into occupation, and Manchester university now formally entering in its 3rd week of resistance, British students are building, consciously or not, a new wave of student political activity across the entire country, with universities in the US now looking at their British counterparts for inspiration.
Nostalgic UK political commentators have already drawn bold parallels between this new wave of student activism and the one often associated with 1968. But whether students will be able to widen the breadth of their current political focus and coalesce the disparate activities into a unified and organised movement of students, it is yet to be seen.
Redefining progressive democracy
The conditions within which students operate today are very different from those of our parents’ generation. Universities are no longer the hubs of progressive political thinking. More often than not, students in Britain appear affected by political apathy, reducing the university experience to a necessary step towards employment and a possible space for collective entertainment.
The neo-liberal influences brought on to academia through Thatcherite policies are partly to blame. The lack of political leadership following the death of party politics has also left students disoriented, with those showing an aptitude for political activity often joining groups and organizations with admirable intent but tactical rigidity, where powerful symbolic protests make up for an overall lack of vision.
For the student movement to strengthen and grow it will be necessary to ensure its independence from political association, learning to network rather than affiliate, where common objectives can be jointly pursued through common strategies.
With a largely apathetic populace – minds addled with reality TV, spectator sports, and celebrity trivia – these politically active students must resist the delusion that a revolution is just around the corner. Instead, they should build the momentum for change through the accumulation of the many ostensibly smaller victories by setting limited, achievable goals. The cumulative effect of such successes is more likely to have an impact than holding on to a utopian wish, however noble.
What students must aspire to is the creation of a new, collective political imagination, defined by bold and visionary approaches to their common identity.
Whichever way the students choose to ride the current wave of political fervour, the recent events in British universities testify to the irrepressible nature of resistance inherent in the student population, offering us all a powerful source of inspiration.
Kim Bizzarri is a doctoral candidate in multilevel governance at the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of a book on the challenges of global governance. He collaborates regularly with Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth Europe and ActionAid. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org