An opinion piece by Jack
Four years ago, Glasgow University announced a devastating cut to its provision of higher education.
While not anything like on the same scale as the disaster currently being proposed by the uni management, their plan would nevertheless have completely deprived thousands of students of higher education. Worse than that, it would have deprived a whole region of Scotland from having any kind of institution of higher education.
Their plan was to close Crichton Campus, a satellite campus of Glasgow University in Dumfries. The campus is the only place you can go to get a degree if you live in South West Scotland, and closing it would have meant that even more young people would be forced out of rural Dumfries and Galloway in order to get an education. Not to mention those who have families, jobs or other commitments that meant they weren’t able to leave.
The rationale behind the move was, of course, cost. We were told Crichton was financially not viable, that management had no choice but to close it down. In fact, then as now, the management of the university were making political and economic choices about what kind of institution they wanted to run. Rather than a place of learning, they were, and are, more interested in running a profitable research institute cum business school, aimed only at attracting the most funding and high-fee paying international students. Providing education to Galloway did not feature in their calculations.
But they had reckoned without the reaction of staff and students. Students at the campus set about making an active campaign to save their institution. Meanwhile, back up here in Glasgow, activists joined together to set up a solidarity campaign to keep the pressure on the management closer to home.
I had the privilege of being involved in that campaign, and believe there are a few lessons we can learn from its success. Although I travelled to Dumfries several times to meet and work with fellow students, most of what I did was in Glasgow, and that’s what I can best comment on.
A key decision we took early on was to personalise the campaign around the then Principal, Muir Russell. This was based on the advice given in the book Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. He advises campaigners not to attack impersonal bureaucracies and institutions, but rather to identify a responsible individual and focus attention on them, as people find this much easier to understand.
Russell was the perfect figure for this. As Principal, the buck stopped with him for cutting Crichton. Before becoming Principal, as a civil servant he had played an important part in imposing the Poll Tax early in Scotland. He had also been a key player in the saga of the massive overspend on the new Scottish Parliament building. When he became Principal he awarded himself a £23, 000 pay rise, whilst sacking staff and making cuts in order to “balance the books”.
We plastered the Gilmorehill campus with posters with Russell’s face on them. Everything we put out to the media or wrote on our websites (this was before Facebook was as dominant as it is today!) constantly identified him as the culprit.
When the students from the campus first came up to speak to management and demonstrate in Glasgow, they were greatly heartened to see that we hadn’t forgotten them, and that the issue was very visible in Glasgow.
The students and staff at the campus were absolutely key to the campaign. They built huge local support in Dumfries with consistent campaigning. They were regularly in the local press. They pushed all candidates from all political parties in the 2007 elections to support the campus. Without them the campaign would have been impossible.
Back in Glasgow, our task was to keep the issue on the agenda and make management feel the pressure. To do that, we picketed and flyered several high profile university events, with people directly asking questions and heckling Russell at a hustings event intended only for the business community for example.
We also conducted a series of protests in Glasgow, Dumfries and outside the Scottish Parliament. We made a lot of noise, and also memorably made up a giant fake P45 for Muir Russell to go alongside our chant: “Sack Muir, Save Crichton!” Our logic was clear: the university could afford Crichton Campus if we got rid of the need to pay a vastly overinflated salary to a failed civil servant.
We also helped co-ordinate international phone blockades, where we picked a two hour stretch of time and asked our supporters from around the world to phone Russell’s office, and that of his other senior colleagues, to express their displeasure at his plans. This was highly effective and something we should consider reviving in our current struggle.
The real lesson of the story of saving Crichton Campus though is that we can win. If you were to believe some of the comments on the Free Hetherington Facebook page, the current round of cuts are inevitable, and we must accept that and work within the “consulation process” offered by management to try and keep us quiet.
That kind of attitude would have seen us sell our fellow students at Crichton down the river and it wouldn’t be open today.
Instead, we recognised that people in power can be put under pressure, and that you must never accept what they say blindly. Our demand today is the same as four years ago: NO cuts and NO job losses.
The fact that we stood by this position, didn’t give up and kept the pressure on is what made the difference. In August 2007 additional funding was given by the Scottish Government, and Crichton was saved. Today, in early leaks of their cutting plans, the uni management have been forced to admit that the future of Crichton will “depend on the political climate” – a euphemism for the fact they know they will face tremendous local opposition if they to close it again. However, they are facing course cuts as well, and we must work hard to bring Crichton students into the wider anti-cuts struggle. The Free Hetherington occupation has already hosted Crichton students as well as a guest lecture by Ben Franks, who lectures in philosophy at Dumfries.
The lesson couldn’t be clearer. We can win. But to do so, we must be organised and not afraid to cause a fuss. If we bring enough pressure to bear, we can and will save all courses and jobs at Glasgow University.
Bonus: Here’s another personal take from someone who was centrally involved in organising the campaign in Glasgow.