Students protest against Liverpool university’s claim that support for strike is ‘unlawful’ | Education
Students at the University of Liverpool blocked senior managers from entering their offices this morning in protest at an email sent by the university warning students that it is “unlawful” for them to join pickets in support of striking lecturers.
The blockade took place on the fifth day of strikes over pay and pensions involving 60,000 members of the University and College Union. The students erected barriers in front of doors and put up banners voicing students’ solidarity.
The blockade at three entrances of the university’s Foundation Building was organised in response to an email sent by pro vice-chancellor Prof Gavin Brown on 22 November. He warned students that if they do not attend teaching sessions held during the strikes they “will be marked as absent, which will have an effect on [their] attendance record”.
Prof Brown added that alternative learning materials may not be made available for students who fail to attend classes, and that the university “will not give consideration at exam boards” for absent students.
Similar to some other universities, the email warned international students that if they choose not to cross picket lines to attend teaching sessions, they “risk jeopardising their visa”.
Ché Spencer Pote, a third-year history and sociology student at the university involved in the blockade, said the students were motivated by the “hostile environment that’s coming from the management of the university”.
“It became clear very quickly that the university wasn’t willing to talk about [the strikes] or listen to any other kind of views, and they were stopping our right to picket which they have no right to do,” she said.
Pote said she has not seen evidence that other universities have issued similar warnings. “That’s what made it so shocking, the University of Liverpool seems to have taken it a step further than everyone else.”
Spencer Pote described the response from private security as “forceful”. “It was very much a peaceful protest, we were just sitting in deckchairs in front of the entrance, and they did forcibly remove us from one of the entrances while threatening arrest,” she said.
University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said Liverpool’s response mirrored similar strong-arm responses aimed at disrupting the strike deployed by other universities. “Tactics employed by universities to threaten, confuse or intimidate staff and students are a silly sideshow by universities desperate to avoid actually engaging with the issues at the heart of the disputes. We warned earlier in the week that these types of tactics failed last year, only hardening strikers’ resolve and angering students,” she said.
“Let me be clear, if universities want to resolve the disputes and avoid further disruption, they will achieve that by talking to us, not by threatening staff and students.”
On 22 November, a pro vice-chancellor at the University of Birmingham, Tim Jones, sent an email to staff warning that picketing would be considered trespassing since the university campus is private land. One thousand people have since signed a petition – including several legal academics – calling on Jones to withdraw his claims or provide legal justification.
The legal academics write in the petition that the university is a public authority under the Human Rights Act 1998, and as such “the rights to protest and to engage in industrial action are protected by articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights”.
Meanwhile, students at the University of Birmingham are calling on their students’ union, the Birmingham Guild of Students, to support the strikes, rather than staying neutral. Students have asked that the Guild give up its rooms for teach-outs, which would allow learning to continue during the strike outside of the university, however they have so far been refused.
A University of Liverpool spokesperson did not comment on the email sent by Prof Brown warning students that joining pickets is “unlawful”.
She said: “A small number of students temporarily blocked access to one of our buildings this morning. They were asked to grant access to staff and agreed to do so.”
A spokesperson for the University of Birmingham disputed that the university had said participating in the strike constituted trespassing.
He said: “We have worked with UCU’s designated picket supervisor during the current industrial action and pickets have been held every day at the locations agreed with UCU, which are at all of the main entrances to campus. There is a long tradition of pickets being held safely and peacefully at these locations by a number of unions. This is what they have proposed to do in line with the Government’s code of practice on picketing. This approach to the location of pickets being outside of premises is common across higher education and other sectors .
“Our focus remains on ensuring the safety of all our staff irrespective of whether they are striking, as well as that of students and visitors.”
A spokesperson for Sheffield Hallam said: “We have put in place a number of measures to help ensure that we have the clearest possible picture of any activities impacted. This will enable us to make alternative arrangements where required, in order to ensure that student learning opportunities are maintained. This is particularly important as staff aren’t obliged to tell the University of their decision to take industrial action in advance of planned activities. The form is one of a number of channels available to help us understand which sessions have not taken place.”