The student occupation is the antithesis of democracy

The occupation of the Gordon Aikman lecture theatre (formerly George Square lecture theatre) has entered another week, as a group of students continues to use the venue to protest in solidarity with lecturers who have only just resolved the pensions dispute.

Our lecturers have every right to demand a proper pension package and the vast majority of students recognise that. I stood in solidarity with university staff during the strike and supported it completely. I also attended and supported protests organised by staff and entirely backed them. That is exactly why I find the recent wave of occupations at universities and student events across Britain to be unproductive and divisive.

The strike stopped several weeks ago. No agreement had yet been reached, but teaching was meant to continue as normal, at least until the next strike action. Why, then, occupy the venue which lecturers use to do their job and prevent them from doing just that?

The aim seems rather contradictory. If the occupation really wants to make a difference, why not occupy the Principal’s office or organise daily protests in front of it? That would garner much more support and could actually contribute to the university complying to their demands.

The occupation claims its aim, among others, is to explore new, creative ways of learning, which is a good idea. But there is no need to occupy the lecture theatre to do that. The occupiers can, for example, establish a new student society aimed at exploring innovative ways of learning and legally use university spaces to do so. The university itself is not opposed to their aims at all since it organises the Festival of Creative Learning in February in which everyone could participate and even create their own events.

Of course, occupations can sometimes be very helpful. For example, students in Sussex recently occupied a student accommodation construction site to protest, among others, the labour practices of the construction company. Their actions were successful as the company will meet trade union representatives. This kind of meaningful occupation is desired and brave. The only upside in our occupation, though, is that some lectures are being held in the beautiful McEwan Hall.

Occupiers at George Square claimed to be continuing to do their university work, attending tutorials and writing essays, for example. This is in complete opposition to their goals, however. Why occupy the lecture theatre and criticise the university if you are going to continue complying with the learning practices against which you stand?
The occupation claims to be open. But this is a contradiction in terms. Occupations are by definition one-sided – someone takes over space at the detriment of others.

Whilst the occupation does invite everyone to come in and explore its aims (which is commendable), it is no wonder that the majority of students have not stepped into the lecture theatre since the occupation began: the whole event is clearly biased towards the far-left. Many, therefore, do not feel comfortable enough to enter the venue, myself included.

Just like the occupation at the recent National Union of Students (NUS) conference, where a group of students occupied the conference stage, Edinburgh’s occupation is stifling democratic debate. If the occupiers want to raise awareness of the issues they deem important, they should organise debates and other events on a neutral territory, which university space (including the lecture theatre) is supposed to be.

The whole point of university, after all, is to challenge and debate ideas in a way that enables both sides to participate equally. The occupation emphasises one side at the expense of all others. While having good intentions, the occupation is not the right way to help our lecturers or address the problems in our education.

Image: Andrew Perry

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