Free University, teach-ins, and tax dodgers

IssueFebruary 2011
News by Kelvin Mason

So far, this winter of discontent has seen some really positive actions in Aberystwyth. On 24 November last year, students from Aberystwyth University “took education into their own hands”, setting up a Free University in the town square. Joining with lecturers and people from schools and the wider community, the Free University action organised by Aber Students Against The Cuts (a Facebook group) opposed spending cuts in education, increases in tuition fees, and the restructuring of higher education. Students staged seminars, classes and other learning activities on the street. There were also art installations, performance workshops and talks by lecturers from a variety of university departments.

One of the student organisers, Kieran Ford, said: “If the government wants to take university learning away from the masses by making it expensive and out-of-reach to ordinary people, then we will take university learning to the masses.”

For one day, the students claimed, Aberystwyth would fulfil the right of its community to a free education: “We aim to show the government our commitment to learning as an end in itself, an investment in society’s future, not just an individual’s earning power”, explained the Students’ Event Manifesto.

The Welsh assembly government plan to cut university funding by 12% over three years and the action in Aberystwyth was echoed elsewhere in Wales. In Cardiff, around 300 students marched in the city centre, some going on to occupy a lecture theatre at the university.

Sixth-form pupils at Monmouth Comprehensive School also took action. The National Union of Students wants students and others to write to their MPs to vote against cuts, including the Education Maintenance Allowance, and proposed tuition fee increases. In Wales, campaigners are lobbying education minister Leighton Andrew.

Teach-in occupation

On the strength of the success of the Free University action in the town, Aberystwyth students staged a teach-in on 16 December. Around fifty students occupied a lecture theatre on the university campus, many staying overnight. During the evening there were documentary films, poetry, music and debates.

The students offered a free education service for everyone, and a number of workshops and seminars took place. Once again, the students’ event was actively supported by a number of staff, including non-academics. Across the board, employees of the university may well face redundancy if the Assembly government budget is enforced. One lecturer relocated his class to the occupied room in order to be in Free University space.

The occupation was planned to coincide with a meeting of the University Council. A mock funeral for the death of higher education was staged by participants, while students collected some 1500 signatures on a petition against proposed cuts in funding. They received messages of support from other occupations in Reading, Edinburgh, Kent, Hull and Exeter, as well as from the University and College Union.

Despite calls for unity, Aberystwyth University management and the vice-chancellor, professor Noel Lloyd have refused to back the students’ campaign. On 6 January, Aber Students Against Cuts and Aberystwyth Guild of Students joined with over fifty university staff, including many eminent professors, to send a letter to west Wales’s newspaper the Cambrian News expressing disappointment with the vice-chancellor’s response.

The letter highlighted “a clear programme of market-driven rhetoric and practices which are inimical to the values of the university.” It continued: “In the face of these attacks on the very culture of higher education, it is vital that universities stand together in defence of their founding educational principles.”

Noel Lloyd, who was awarded a CBE for services to higher education, will retire at the end of the 2010-11 academic year. Staff and students alike will be hoping his successor has the vision and backbone to defend academic values.

Licking the Jammie Dodger

On another front, the UK Uncut campaign hit Aberystwyth with two demonstrations against multi-billionaire tax dodger sir Philip Green and his Arcadia Group Limited, which owns the Burton, Dorothy Perkins and Evans shops in the town. Arcadia has some 2,500 outlets in the UK, plus concessions in some large department stores and franchises abroad.

UK Uncut claim Philip Green’s 2005 tax dodge was of the order of £285m and that it alone could pay for “The full, hiked up, £9,000 fees for almost 32,000 students.” The dodge hinges on Arcadia being owned by Tina Green, Philip’s better – or at least ostensibly richer – half. Lady Green is domiciled in Monaco and pays not a penny in UK tax. She is reported to be “Britain’s second richest woman.” Not as green as she’s cabbage-looking, then, our Tina.

The Aberystwyth demonstrations on 11 and 18 December resulted in one arrest for obstructing a constable. As the man was led away, demonstrators chanted: “If you want police protection, pay your tax!” – obviously not a prerequisite.

Handing out Jammie Dodgers along with flyers, Uncut demonstrators certainly raised a smile from shoppers on Great Darkgate Street. Hopefully, they also raised awareness of the Great Green Scam. The Jammie Dodger, Philip Green, really takes the biscuit.

Action Stations

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is helping to organise student demonstrations in London and Manchester on 29 January.

The next UK Uncut day of action is Monday 31 January. This is the deadline for ordinary people to return their self-assessment tax forms. Meanwhile corporate tax dodgers - Philip Green, Vodaphone, HSBC, Grolsch, HMV, Boots, Barclays, KPMG and others avoid paying some £25bn to the Revenue every year.

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