Students have entered occupation in the Nodus building at University of Surrey in protest to University management and the cutting of courses at Guildford School of Acting (GSA). Report By Felice Southwell The students entered the offices of GSA management at 2pm on 22nd May and immediately published their list of demands on Twitter @OccupyGSA. The occupation follows staffing and funding cuts to the BA Theatre and Performance and Dance programmes, as well as recent votes of no confidence by the Students’ Union and the University and Colleges Union towards the governing bodies. Their demands include a call for more transparency and clarification of a ‘suspension’ or ‘closure’, to rule out compulsory redundancies and to ensure that optional modules for current students are safe. Sources report that the mental health of students and staff have been affected by the announcements and that offers to prospective students whose places had previously been confirmed were revoked. Rebekah Kerley, a final year Theatre and Performance student, said: “Since the announcement was made, we’ve been lied to, we’ve been given misinformation, we’ve been treated badly. We’ve asked for the bare minimum in terms of information and transparency and we’ve just been met with truly appalling behaviour. It’s not professional or fair or kind at all.” “We’ve gone through every other means possible to talk to them and they just won’t listen; they don’t want to, because they see us as a problem rather than as students that have paid to be here and are dedicated to the University and the course.” Cathryn Fenton, a final year Theatre and Performance student, described the “constant erasure, lack of resources and a generally hostile environment” on the course since it merged with GSA four years ago, which used to be part of the Faculty of Arts before restructuring. Students are sat in the Nodus building where the GSA management offices are located Other students have also entered occupation to show solidarity with GSA students, in protest to the misinformation and lack of transparency from management. On Friday 17th May, it was announced that in recent referendums on campus, 84% of students and 96% of staff voted that they did not have confidence in the University’s management and leadership bodies. No representatives from GSA management were available to comment at the time of publication. Security are present and the occupation is now officially ‘closed’, meaning students cannot join the occupation. Analysis By Cathryn Fenton, Rebekah Kerley and Peter Ferguson On the 22nd May the Surrey Protect Our Arts Collective occupied the Nodus Centre on both floors in response to the cuts and possibilities of course closures to the Theatre and Performance course at GSA. The Collective consists of a mix of Theatre and Performance students, Surrey Labour Students, Cut the Rent, People and Planet as well as other student activists. Their demands have been placed around campus on posters and on social media as well as a banner in front of the Nodus Centre reading Protect Our Arts Collective. On Wednesday 1st May it was announced to Theatre and Performance Students from Sean McNamara, Head of Guildford School of Acting, that the decision has been taken to withdraw the BA Dance and BA Theatre and Performance programmes. Four members of staff are leaving at the end of the academic year through EVS, the University’s Enhance Voluntary Severance initiative. The positions of remaining staff members on the programmes remain uncertain as their departments are set to close. Since it was announced there has been a series of mis-management from the University of Surrey and GSA. Prospective students for the programmes were offered, and have confirmed, places on the courses only for them to be revoked via email; they have been offered no support or reason form the University. PhD students within the department discovered the closure from social media and rumour, many are losing their supervisors as a result of the closure. Students on their Professional Training Year and temporary withdrawal were not contacted by the school concerning the closure until management were prompted to let them know. Current students have received no reassurance of the way in which the rest of their degree is to be delivered with the reduced numbers of staff and the lack of incoming students (which is vital for modules in which students collaborate). The students in occupation are demanding GSA management to commit to an official schedule and announcement detailing exactly what is planned for the courses’ future. The demands the students are making are: To provide a transparent statement concerning the terms of closure, addressing the misinformation of ‘suspension’ vs ‘closure’. Otherwise, commit to reinstate the course and liaise with current students about the process. To confirm that there will be no further redundancies or compulsory redundancies of all staff. To confirm that the jobs of the Theatre and Performance team are secure. To support our course giving it the time and resources that it has been starved off. To confirm that optional modules will always be available to students currently enrolled. To ensure that this year’s graduating cohort is represented at graduation with a relevant guest speaker, with assurances that the University of Surrey is clearly written on their certificates. Student anger has been fuelled by the way in which GSA management have treating the BA Theatre and Performance course in the past. Previous to the announcement of closure, in April the final year students sent the Head of GSA, Sean McNamara, a letter detailing their concern at the erasure of the programme. They are yet to receive a response. Until 2016, BA Theatre and Performance and BA Dance found their home at the University of Surrey under the School of Arts. During the Operational Review both programmes were merged into GSA and since the merge, students have reported a distinct lack engagement from the school. GSA have been hostile to their presence and have constantly stripped back resources for the course. Over the past four years, GSA management have consistently used language that has erases the existence of the Theatre and Performance programme. Until students called out this erasure attempt, only 0.2% of GSA tweets mentioned BA Theatre and Performance. GSA have also deleted the only post of Theatre and Performance on their Instagram and have not marketed the Theatre and Performance applicant days. For students, it is clear that GSA management did not want to host to the programmes, and with this in mind it seems the reasons for the closure stem from a power imbalance and ideological differences between the traditional training conservatoire and the academic programmes. We find the actions and attitude from management figures in this situation underwhelming and disrespectful to the students and staff involved. Within three hours of the occupation Sean McNamara and Lucy Evans, the Chief Students Officer, came to discuss the reasons for the occupation and hear the demands of the students. Both Sean McNamara and Lucy Evans were asked to comment but declined to comment on the situation at the present time. Students within the occupation were thankful for Lucy Evans coming to talk to them but found the responses from both unsatisfactory and inaccurate, in particular from Sean McNamara. These actions follow 84% of students and 96% of staff voting that they don’t have confidence in the management of the university’s top bodies.
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Incite reports on the context of the current referendum to indicate students’ confidence in the governing bodies, and gets the opinion of two spokespeople from the ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ campaigns. Remember, Surrey students can vote until 7pm 17/5/19 at ussu.co.uk Report On 21st March the Students’ Union Executive Committee voted unanimously to hold a referendum to establish whether or not the student body have confidence in the Max Lu, Vice Chancellor of the University, and his leadership team. The exact wording of the Vote of No Confidence is: ‘Is the performance and leadership of the governing bodies of the University of Surrey satisfactory?’. The thoughts of the voters is thus divided into “yes” in support of senior management, and “no” in opposition to them. The vote was passed after extensive debate from both the Exec committee and those attending the meeting, including non-Exec union officers and liberation representatives. Within the room, students’ opinions on the performance of the senior management team were varied. Whether they were founded on discontent over funding cuts to courses, fear of departments being closed, or even occasional twinges of sympathy for Max Lu, it is clear that the current climate within the student body of the University of Surrey is calling out for change, or at least debate. As of publication, we’re right in the middle of the campaign season where both the Yes and the No campaign are battling for the support of the student body. The Yes campaign is run predominantly by Marco Conticini, with his campaign focusing on the University’s effort to maximise study space, improve feedback, broaden the housing options and improve wellbeing services. The No campaign, in contrast, is encouraging people to vote against University management for reasons including staff cuts, cuts to support services, a lack of focus on sustainability, and pay rises for senior staff alongside drops in the league tables. The Question Time debate – headed by Monique Botha-Kite for the No campaign and Marco Conticini for the Yes campaign – was rather heated and showed the concerns students had extending beyond the scope of the referendum question, with issues of accessibility, teaching quality, and GP services being referenced. A significant facet of the debate was the discussion around executive pay alongside Surrey’s sharp declines in the league tables, with some contradictory statistics being tossed around to back up either side. The debate ended with many questions unanswered, but both representatives agreed on the need for accountability on the part of the University. With similar action at the University of Bath leading to the stepping-down of their Vice Chancellor in recent years, the outcome of the referendum will be both an interesting and could possibly lead to a change in structure. Voting for the referendum closes at 7pm Friday 17th May 2019 and you can vote at ussu.co.uk or via the link sent to your Surrey email account. The results will be announced on the Students’ Union social media channels shortly after. Analysis Bethany Dawson – The No Campaign Simply, we’re tired of an unaccountable and undemocratic executive board, positioned at the top of the University, who are failing in their management. As the University of Surrey has been slipping drastically in the league tables, in tandem with student satisfaction on a steep decline, the Executive Board have rewarded themselves with a 7% pay rise. In 2011, the University set themselves the target of a 34% cut in emissions by 2020; this target will not be reached, in 2016 the emissions reduction was only at 9.8%. This failure is one of many. The University is currently cutting hundreds of staff whilst increasing student numbers, cutting courses without adequate justification, failing to make campus accessible for all students, and feedback to courses is being returned far after the deadline for teachers. We are working to mobilise the student body to vote “no” in the vote of confidence of the Executive board to show that the students are no longer standing for a managerial body who do not have the needs of the students as their primary concern. We know that direct action against this University works. In March of 2018 ten students occupied the office of the Vice Chancellor in support of our lecturers during the UCU Strikes, and this 24-hour protest caused wide-reaching policy change. This movement represents the nation-wide fight against the marketisation of education, wherein students are treated as consumers, and education the product. The problems faced by students at the University of Surrey are those that can be seen by students in Higher Education across the country. Staff are striking at the University of Winchester over proposed staff cuts, the University of Reading are proposing a voluntary redundancy scheme to balance their financial losses, and students at the University of Bristol held a successful rent strike to combat an exploitative private rented sector. The problems that our campaign is highlighting are not localised to only our University, but we hope that our display of direct action is enough to show students at other Universities that they do not have to passively accept the poor deal they are offered as consumers within an institution that cannot provide adequately. Marco Conticini – The Yes Campaign Lectures in the Odeon. Not a thing anymore. Why? The university learnt a lesson and won’t ever let that happen again. Mismanagement? Not quite, let’s look at what people aren’t telling you. Staff make up half the costs of the University. Every year, staff pay grows (around 2%) plus an annual pay grade rise. The University wants to pay all its staff but fees have remained virtually the same. The University is like a household, you need to have money so you can pay for the essentials. This year, the pensions contribution skyrocketed by £6 million a year and there is a risk that the government may drop student fees, leaving the university with an even bigger shortfall. Nevertheless, funding for additional learning support has doubled since 2015. The University provides students with a state-of-the-art sports park at less than half the price offered to the public and a Guildford-wide bus service at a quarter of the price that the public pay. Hardship funds and bursaries have been kept as a priority and cuts are being made with a focus on reducing the size of management. Universities such as Kent and Sheffield are forcing staff out – at Surrey we’re offering staff the option to leave with a bonus package on top. There are things the University can improve, but things are moving in the right direction, and hindering our University’s ability to face these huge issues is the last thing Surrey needs! If you’re annoyed about something, let people know and things will change.
In a Varsity special, Thomas Sherlock comments on the collision of two divisive events in the calendar of Surrey and Royal Holloway students – Varsity and the Brexit deadline. Royal Holloway College and the University of Surrey are officially rivals for about a week per year, the Bears vs the Stags. It’s ironic then that this year the week happens to coincide with arguably one of the most divided points in the Houses of Commons’ long history. MPs have resorted to a series of indicative votes to find any common ground on what to do next for Brexit. Whatever your views on it, it’s clear that Brexit has unleashed a cauldron of division and anger across British politics. I’m not going to pretend division is anything new. Of course our democracy is well used to division of a degree, it’s even the very word the Speaker calls to initiate voting in the Commons. We have a political system that thrives on it; a government always faces an opposition in the Commons, the electoral system is predisposed to produce two main parties and by nature elections are always going to divide those who won and those who did not. Brexit however has triggered a new level of divisions. Division was always going to be the result of a yes/no referendum, but I doubt anyone expected it to go as a far it has. The division is now even entrenched into rival marches: The Put It To The People rally on 23 March, followed by a Leave Means Leave rally on 29 March. Now the majority of the legislative body is at odds with the executive over the Withdrawal Agreement, members from the same parties at odds with each other on what to support instead. Proposals for a Common Market 2, the Malthouse Compromise, confirmatory referendum and no deal entirely have all been thrown into the discussion. Meanwhile the delayed deadline of 12 April still looms. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on the toxic atmosphere politicians face these days. It’s all well documented: the online abuse, branding of MPs as traitors, the death threats that prevent some of them even going home. This is present in both the main parties; the blocs that our political system is designed to thrive on have been fundamentally broken by Brexit and its aftermath, to the point of actually splitting. I won’t elaborate on whether I think Brexit is a good or bad idea, but its impact has been an earthquake to British politics and the fractures are everywhere. There is a mere few weeks to find some future path that crosses the divides: the rhetoric has to calm down, and people have to compromise. Somehow along the process, compromise seem to have been forgotten. So as the rivalry of Holloway and Surrey comes to a close for another year, it’s always worth a reminder: we all have more in common than that which divides us. I can but hope that the House of Commons remembers this in the coming weeks. Thomas Sherlock is an Editor for the Despatch Box, a politics magazine part of the Royal Holloway University of London Politics and International Relations Society.
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