Inviting Police onto Campus: Why have University Vice Chancellors and the Police become such Likely Bedfellows?

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Sussex-StrikeNadine El-Enany (Lecturer in Law, Birkbeck, University of London) – based on a talk delivered at the event, ‘Policing the Neoliberal University’, SOAS March 10 2014

See also Priya Gopal on “The Consumer Student”  who also spoke at the event

How and why have we come to a point where police are so regularly invited onto university campuses? In general terms, we have certainly seen an intensification of police repression of student protest since the 2010 student movement against the increase in tuition fees, cuts to higher education funding and abolition of education maintenance allowance (EMA). The remarkable strength and perseverance demonstrated by students in the face of the Coalition government’s unpopular austerity agenda led to the state framing students as a threat to public order and this can be seen in the police’s brutal treatment of student protesters. Recently we have seen the police being welcomed onto campuses by university management. We saw the Sussex anti-privatisation campaign resulting in arrests, prosecutions and disciplinary action against students. Birmingham and Bradford students were arrested and charged after participating in protests. A student was prosecuted and heavily fined after writing a message of solidarity with the 3Cosas campaign in chalk on University of London property. Late last year, we witnessed the violent eviction by police of the Senate House occupiers and their vicious clampdown on the ‘copsoffcampus’ movement.

If we take a somewhat broader view historically, we can see that the campus has not been a space safe from intrusion by the police for quite some time. As higher education has undergone a swift, yet stealthy, process of neoliberalisation – the transformation of universities from self-regulating institutions in society into entities that much more closely resemble businesses – universities have been subjected to more intensively managerialist forms of discipline. This has entailed the introduction of management practices traditionally associated with the private sector into public sector institutions, including higher education, and has affected the way in which managers have responded to protests on campus. Whereas traditionally student and staff occupations were dealt with by negotiation or by internal security employees and without recourse to public power, calling the police is now commonly considered an appropriate response. The alacrity with which the police are called in by today’s Vice Chancellors is a clear indication of a shift from the university being a self-regulated, autonomous institution whose authority is derived from its own internally generated standards and norms, to a body that is much more akin to a private business. When the academy becomes a marketplace, it comes to be seen as a subject of police power, intrusion and regulation – just as with any other lump of private property geared to selling a commodity.

Vice Chancellors have had little compunction in inviting police onto campus to deal with conflicts or contestation which manifest themselves as student and staff demonstrations and occupations of university buildings. The managerialist culture creeping into every corner of higher education has meant that managers have had little trouble in conceiving of the police as having an important role to play on campus. The imposition of managerialism in universities facilitates and normalises the use of mechanisms of control. Once a university is in the business of producing degrees for its fee-paying customers, the pressure to keep that production line moving is all the greater. In a culture and context where getting people into line involves using blunt and brutish tools to achieve goals, calling the police to deal with a student protest or taking out an injunction against protest on campus will seem more reasonable responses than in a context where less brutish and controlling means are used on an everyday basis for regulating a workplace.

This is not to argue that there was once a golden age in which police did not involve themselves in student political activity on campus. However, we can see a dramatic example of the recent shift towards heavy reliance on the police if we look at Greece. In 2011 freedom of speech laws that banned police from entering Greek universities, and were originally introduced to protect freedom of expression on campus in 1982, were repealed as part of a series of higher education reforms at a time when students were forming political movements in opposition to the government’s unpopular austerity agenda.

Inviting police onto campus in Britain has not been restricted to control and repression of political activity on the part of students, but has also been of a deeply ideological kind, serving to justify, intellectualise and contextualise that control. A number of universities, including the London School of Economics, the University of East London and Liverpool University, extended speaking invitations to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan Howe, in the wake of the student protests of 2010. In all these instances, we saw universities extending a warm and deferential welcome to the police by giving the Met police commissioner the honour of a sole platform on which to convey his vision of the role of police in society.

What is significant is that the invitations came at a time when university Vice Chancellors were showing their support for the hike in tuition fees and in the wake of the role played by the police in brutally shutting down the student resistance to government policy as well as the mobilisation of the full force of the criminal justice system as a means of crushing political dissent on the part of students. The timing indicates a clear political intervention on the part of university mangers as well as signalling a willingness amongst managers to ingratiate themselves with the police force. It is particularly salient that universities extended speaking invitations to the police at the same time that many of the student trials resulting from the protests were going through the courts. Giving a sole platform to the police at this crucial juncture, at which the narrative of what happened at the protests was still being contested in courts, not only demonstrates the pro-police partiality on the part of university managers but also added insult to the real injuries suffered by students such as Alfie Meadows, who needed life saving brain surgery after being hit by a police officer at the 9th December 2010 student demonstration.

With this in mind it is perhaps unsurprising that university managers consider the police their allies in their efforts to clamp down on students who protest about the way in which their universities are run.

In recent years, more than ever before, the police’s nature as a racist, sexist, corrupt enforcer of class power has been publicly exposed in a series of scandals – undercover police, the Hillsborough cover up and their total lack of accountability for deaths in police custody, to name but a few. In spite of this, Vice Chancellors have willingly invited the police onto campuses. This in itself should be seen as scandalous.

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