Today saw an unprecedented dialogue at the University of Nottingham that exposed the gulf between the views of students and staff and those of their Vice Chancellor. The open meeting was a condition of the temporary suspension of the students’ occupation of the Great Hall, and had a Question Time format with speakers from Notts Students Against Fees and Cuts (NSAFC, who organised the occupation), the Students’ Union and the Vice Chancellor of the university.
Following a lively and well-attended rally, the meeting opened with a statement from each participant. Dr Greenaway, the Vice Chancellor, who recently accompanied David Cameron on his trip to China, focused on the nuances of the difference between fees and a graduate tax and claimed that the argument was not about whether students should contribute, only how much and when. The representative of NSAFC explained the principles of ‘education as a social as well as a personal good’ that guided the demands of the occupiers and the collaborative, educational nature of that occupation. The Students’ Union President also stated that he was against the raise in tuition fees and supported ‘the cause’ of the occupiers.
The many students and staff in attendance asked a series of well-informed questions including those about the causes of the economic crisis, the purpose of education, the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, the refusal of the Vice Chancellor to lobby against cuts and fee changes, and whether he would take a cut to his salary of more than £300,000 pa in order to free up money for bursaries and research funding. Not one question was put forward in support of fees and cuts, despite the open nature of the meeting.
During 90 minutes of open debate, Greenaway admitted that he believed Higher Education to be a privilege not a right and agreed with markets and a tiered system in university education. The question now is whether the Vice Chancellor can maintain this stance against the clear will of his staff and students. Relationships of respect and trust have already been damaged by the fact, officially acknowledged at today’s meeting, that the university gave false information to the occupiers that a wedding was booked to take place in the occupied room (an assertion that was a significant factor in persuading the occupiers to suspend their action).
After the meeting one undergraduate explained that ‘The University has already lied to us. We made it clear today that we will give Greenaway the chance to take our views forward, but will continue to take direct action until the University and the government change their policies. This debate has shown that we are the true voice of the University. The next step is the protest in London this Thursday when MPs vote on fee rises.’
NSAFC, which includes students from schools, Further Education and both Nottingham universities, continues to demand that the University lobby against fee rises, funding cuts and the end of EMA, as well as opening its books and ensuring no redundancies for staff. In refusing the first of these demands, Greenaway argued that there was no point continuing to lobby against funding cuts because ‘the die is now cast’. The students countered that the mass national action underway shows that policy can and must change.