In March this year, students occupied Central Saint Martins’ reception area under the banner of OccupyUAL. For four weeks a campaign drew attention to the group’s demands – principally that cuts to Foundation courses be abolished and issues concerning fees, student debt, diversity and the right to protest be further addressed by University of the Arts London. Mark Sinclair talks to Anastazja Oppenheim about OccupyUAL’s aims and objectives and how the ongoing campaign has moved from sit-in to social media.
Can you outline OccupyUAL’s aims and demands?
Our first demand was for UAL to abandon its plans to cut Foundation in Art and Design (FAD). FAD is a year-long, multi-disciplinary course where students are encouraged to experiment with different art forms and create a portfolio. It is free for home students under the age of 19, which allows young people to develop their passion without worrying about debt.
Completing a Foundation is also an entry requirement for many HE courses around the country. Even where it’s not obligatory, it helps to level the playing field for students from working-class backgrounds, who might not have had high-level art education at school, as well as for ethnic minorities. Research shows that Foundation helps to close the attainment gap for black students at UAL. FAD courses have been the first step in their careers for countless artists and designers – including many of my friends. Some of them say that they would have never gone to university if it weren’t for Foundation. Foundation is not as lucrative for the university as BAs and expensive short courses are – but we believe that it is essential.
This demand connects to the three other issues that we want the university to tackle (see panel on previous page): the lack of democracy and transparency within the institution; its [alleged] institutional racism (almost exclusively white academic staff, Western-centric curriculum, attainment gap significantly larger than the national average); and the cost of studying. We also asked for students and staff participating in the campaign not to be sanctioned.
How did the UAL occupation take shape back in March? Can you give us a brief outline of what happened? And also what the status is today?
On March 16, UAL management announced that they had decided to cut hundreds of places on Foundation courses and make dozens of staff redundant. One of the sabbatical officers at our Students’ Union published the information on Facebook, and students were outraged. We called an emergency meeting on May 19 to discuss what we could do to stop the cuts. Inspired by the recent events in Amsterdam and LSE, we spontaneously decided to occupy the Central Saint Martins reception space. We simply went in and refused to leave when the building was closing.
On the first night, only seven of us stayed until the morning. We did not have any idea how long the occupation might last. Surely none of us imagined that it would be our home for the next four weeks, attract hundreds of supporters, and end up in court.
The reception turned out to be rather comfortable. We had sofas to sleep on, bathrooms, a kitchen and plenty of computers. The time we spent there was filled with creative workshops, film screenings political discussions, games and alcohol-free parties. There were also quiet spaces where people could read, study and make art. Every evening, we held a meeting where we would democratically decide on our plans and rules. We also divided responsibilities for the following days. We created teams responsible for cooking, cleaning, organising events, speaking to the media etc.
We could lock and unlock the reception door from the inside, which meant that people could leave to buy groceries, go to class or work, or take a rest at home if they needed. Students, supportive staff and other activists were always allowed in, management and security were not. The community was based on trust. We had a set of rules that we expected everyone to respect, to make sure the space remained safe and welcoming. All in all, around 50 people spent at least one night in the occupation, with many, many more joining us during daytime.
How do you think your aims fit into a wider context, within something like the Red Square Movement or the ‘Student Spring’? Is being part of a wider movement a galvanising factor? Have you taken influence from any other protest groups or causes (eg Pride), or shown allegiance with any other student groups with similar aims ie at LSE and in Amsterdam, Montreal and Warsaw?
We definitely see our campaign as part of a broader movement for a free, accessible and democratic education. The decision to cut Foundation was an example of students’ and staff rights being sacrificed in the name of profit. This is a phenomenon we are now seeing everywhere, in the era of increasingly marketised and privatised education. It’s the same problem that sparked the recent student protests around the country, as well as in Amsterdam, Quebec, Poland, Chile and more. We have been in touch with activist groups from many other universities. We regularly visited the three London occupations that were happening at the same time: in LSE, King’s College and Goldsmiths; and they in turn came to help with ours. We also had guests from the University of Amsterdam. We organised some events together, shared tips and experiences. Getting to meet campaigners from different groups and institutions, forming activist networks and building friendships was a great aspect of the occupation.
Bob & Roberta Smith has been vocal against the cuts to Hackney College’s Foundation courses and also spoke at CSM; while ex-Byam Shaw graduate Yinka Shonibare has also showed his support for the OUAL cause. Have many other creatives/artists shown support? Equally, have staff or ex-UAL grads been showing support for your cause?
The occupation attracted a lot of media attention, as well as messages of support from fellow creatives. Bob & Roberta Smith came to visit, and so did photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, performance artists Mark McGowan (also known as Artist Taxi Driver) and comedian Josie Long. Journalists like Owen Jones and Suzanne Moore were also vocal in support of our cause. The reaction from staff was overwhelmingly positive. Many tutors visited us or sent messages of solidarity. However, the majority asked to remain anonymous, fearing for their jobs. More recently, over 150 UAL academics wrote an open letter urging UAL management to reconsider the proposed cuts to FAD. UAL alumni have also been visiting us, with a few of them staying in the occupation for weeks.
Now that the occupation has ended (following a well-publicised court case), what means have you been using to continue the campaign – from online tools, to banners and posters – and what has proved to be successful? Has staging events helped your campaign?
As art and design students, we made sure to fill the space with art. Colourful banners in windows attracted visitors who might have not heard about our campaign before. Images posted online were widely shared on social media. Facebook and Twitter were extremely useful in getting our message across, but so was having a beautiful, welcoming space with political artwork on every wall. We also organised events every day. We had creative workshops, political discussions, guest talks by artists and activists, and screenings of Pride and The Hornsey Film. These events not only brought new people in, but also helped us educate ourselves. We aimed to create an alternative university within the occupation, where we could learn from each other in an atmosphere of collaboration and freedom.
Have any of OUAL’s aims been met as yet? If not, what is your position on trying to achieve them? And how will you measure success?
It is too early to evaluate how much the occupation has achieved. The majority of the cuts are meant to happen in 2016/17, and we do believe that we can stop them. Since we left the occupation, many smaller-scale direct actions have been taking place around the university, and the campaign continues. However, regardless of whether or not Foundation can be saved, I believe the occupation was worth the effort. We have definitely managed to mobilise many students who had never been involved in activism before, and to form useful links with other activist groups. We have learned new skills and encountered new ideas.
We have also opened discussions that [we believe] the university had been avoiding, such as about race and the attainment gap. We finally saw some attempts from the university to tackle this – including the recent decision to introduce anonymous marking across UAL.
What’s the current status of the petition? And, finally, what’s next for OccupyUAL?
Our petition stands at 4,150 signatures and counting. We are still collecting them and thinking of the most effective way of delivering them, so that they can no longer be ignored. Further actions have been planned, but at the moment we cannot disclose details. Follow OccupyUAL on Facebook and Twitter for the latest!
We contacted UAL for their position on the question of cuts to Foundation courses. They stated that “We are reducing our Foundation in Art and Design intake by 580 over two years. We remain passionately committed to providing Foundation in Art and Design for art and design students. We will continue to teach it in two centres at Central Saint Martins and Chelsea, Camberwell and Wimbledon. The qualification will no longer be delivered at London College of Communication, where it is generally not a prerequisite of entry to undergraduate courses. In this way, we will continue to provide Foundation where it is genuinely useful while saving other students from the need to have another year in education, with its associated costs.”
UAL has pointed out that it will meet its recruitment target for BAME students this year and has recently appointed two BAME professors. A detailed response from UAL to the campaign is at newsevents.arts.ac.uk/46162/. UAL has also published its correspondence with OccupyUAL at newsevents.arts.ac.uk/45966/correspondence-occupy-ual/