By John Heathcliff
It’s 8.30 pm on 5th November 2015, and for the first time in over four years UEA students have gone into occupation, just outside the Vice Chancellor’s office. It’s a cold winter night, and it’s raining quite heavily, but the protesters – resplendent in orange jumpsuits – are huddled together under a blue tarpaulin, which is swaying in the wind. Banners and placards are hung across the railings of the square, with one proclaiming loudly: “DIVEST”. There aren’t many students around yet to see the occupation, but there will be more tomorrow, because the protesters are staying for 26 hours: each hour representing £5,000 of the money that UEA invests in fossil fuels. This is the UEA Fossil Free occupation.
Once again, the wishes of students have been sidelined
The occupation is the culmination of two years of frustrated lobbying by students, who have consistently been met by evasion and brick walls from university management. Managers have insisted that UEA is “not a campaigning organisation” and that it prefers to discuss the issue with the relevant companies (despite admitting that it has never discussed the issue with the fossil fuel industry). Despite protests, petitions, letters, marches, hundreds of Tweets and a communications blockade, UEA still continues to invest in fossil fuels. Union Council has passed motions calling for divestment, and thousands of students have called on UEA to stop investing their tuition fee money in funding climate change. So one can understand why it is that students, angry at the unethical use of their fees, have taken to occupying their own campus in protest. When your own university regards the profits of fossil fuel firms as more important than the democratic wishes of its own students, it’s not hard to see why the only way students can make their voice heard is through direct action.
The familiar features of an occupation are all here: tea runs, consensus decision-making, tents, banners, complaints and objections from rightwing students. But despite how familiar all these things seem – having been seen a million times before in other universities – it is something that UEA has not seen for a long time. The last occupation was all the way back in 2011, in opposition to the closure of the Music School, and the parallels are striking. Once again, the wishes of students have been sidelined; once again, business interests have been put ahead of student rights; and once again, students have been driven to direct action because of the total lack of engagement from the administration.
If anything, the fact that students have taken to occupying their campus once again after a 4-year gap emphasises just how much the administration has ignored them, as well as showing the importance of divestment. When managers refuse to listen to their students, despite students taking every single possible action short of direct action, then students have no choice but to force the university to listen. Despite the complaints, the truth is that in this situation direct action is not a luxury, but a necessity. Speeches in Union Council meetings will not bring about divestment, whatever moderates claim.
UEA has so far been unable to answer that question.
Yet when one remembers the Union Council debate on Fossil Free, which took place in a warm lecture theatre in October 2013, it seems far removed from the cold, wet November night in which the occupation is taking place. But the words spoken in the debate still ring true today: “why would an institution in the forefront of research into the impact of climate change choose to finance the very industry that is the major cause of climate change?”
UEA has so far been unable to answer that question. And sitting here tonight, seeing the determination of protesters to sit through the cold and rain to fight fossil fuels, it’s very obvious that the protests will continue until that question is given a proper answer. They aren’t going anywhere.