Tag Archives: self-sustenance

The Utopian Law School and the Fate of the University

This post was contributed by Joanna Hartl, a first-year student on Birkbeck’s three-year LLB.

The first day of  Law on Trial was well attended, with an impressive line up of academics on the panel. With Dr Adam Gearey in the chair, we were led into the first presentation by Jane Holder from UCL, which was about opening us up to Environmental Law and Ecology. We were told that it would be good if students and academics alike could walk the talk by becoming self-sustaining economic units, similar to monastic units, by fundamentally getting back to nature and living in a utopian ecological paradise experiencing a series of diverse ecosystems first-hand and learning how to manage them, while studying at the same time. It called to my mind an image of people becoming a modern day Diggers Group, led by Adam, spade in one hand, and photocopied earth stained seminar texts in the other, growing carrots and lettuces in Torrington Square, with Patricia Tuitt complete with trowel and compost planting tomato seedlings in pots on the roof garden of the 5th floor eatery! I was left waiting for the announcement as to when the work was to commence……..!?! Certainly food for thought, and with the rapid increase of community gardens, who knows what the result may be….it is up to us as students to be the movers, if anything is to be done!

The idea of running a self-sustaining academic unit, where all became involved was further developed through the second presentation from Maia Pal of Sussex University. Maia recounted the occupation of Sussex University in 2012 which lasted for approximately two months. A cross section of about 300 people from the university got together from diverse areas, taking over the conference centre – not only students but also security guards, administration staff and academics, together with cleaners and catering staff who joined forces to support a joint effort of protest against the management of the university, who had decided among other things to privatise, in order to try and save money, and outsource approximately 250 jobs. They managed to successfully occupy the university until a 2000-strong group of supporters somehow smashed the door of the main entrance, and then legal proceedings were taken to evict them, with five students being arrested. It is now illegal to stage a protest if the management haven’t given their consent! The slogan painted on the wall that summed it up was “A University Is Nothing Without Dialogue”. Maia energetically encouraged us all to think about who owns the University, is it the management? Is it the students? Is it the people who work there? The academics, and/or the non- faculty staff? Maia told us that she had learnt from her experiences in Quebec where both faculty and non-faculty could bind together successfully. She challenged us to think about the use of space and ownership, and that thinking about law should be a part of our education, especially where we are exposed to “Jurisdictional Struggles” which in themselves question the existence of the law, and the use of space.

From this pragmatic stance we were guided back into the realms of literature by the next speaker, Thomas Docherty of Warwick University, who told us that the poet Shelley stated “….Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world…..” But he then went on to give a very cogent account of the political history behind the introduction of tuition fees for higher education, and critiqued Cameron ‘s ” something for nothing ” gripe about people who don’t have any resources wanting a share of the cake, making a comparison with those business-minded types who seek to enforce this culture into academic fields, and business, whereby someone will be expected to bring more results for less funding year after year until finally there is nothing left! Ultimately leading to THEFT! He covered also how the teaching accreditation techniques were becoming increasingly meaningless, causing an administrative overload, and not much else. He threw out pertinent questions to the audience about student debt, and taxation, and the possible privatisation of the student loan book, which the government would like to sell off. He told us that this increase in debt (poetic reference here to debt being like a “….shadow that is cast…”) is adding to social injustice, and ultimately would create yet more inequality. What we need to aspire to is a just university where …”crisis decision making “… at the heart of the university can be seen to be effective in extending justice out into the community, rather than allowing injustices (of all sorts) to continue.Thomas then summed up, saying that what we often get is quantity not quality, proving that he is obviously a poet and a literary man at heart!

Plenty of ideas and information came from this meeting, we just need to decide what course of action to pursue now, as the ball is in our court.