• Fri. Mar 1st, 2024

Gordon Aikman Reclaimed: Was it worth it? 

Outside the occupied Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre. Many students are gathered outside with signs and loudspeakers. Some of the signs read "people before profit", "another university is possible", and "decolonise, decommodify, decarbonise"

This article was originally submitted on the 26th March

The Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre was occupied by students from the Staff-Student Solidarity Network Edinburgh, Youth In Resistance Edinburgh, and the Edinburgh University Justice for Palestine Society. 

The takeover began on Saturday March 19 and lasted until Friday March 25. 

The occupation had several aims: to show support for the UCU strike action taking place during the same week, to protest the university’s lack of action against climate change, to educate students on the capitalist structure of the university and its controversial investments in foreign military and oil; to encourage the decolonialisation of the curriculum; and to hold education events during Israeli Apartheid Week to express solidarity with Palestinian people living under apartheid in Israel.

Throughout the past week, the three groups organised workshops, teach-outs, reading groups and discussions which aimed to encourage debate and conversation. 

Many flags and signs were hung from the building, advertising the groups’ aims. Some read: “People Not Profit’, ‘Another University is Possible’, ‘Student Experience is Well Paid Staff’, and ‘Decolonise, Decommodify, Decarbonise’.

The three groups released a joint statement explaining the reasons behind the occupation. They said:

“[This university] has repeatedly proven that it is more concerned with capitalist expansion rather than education.

“We, the students, are being exploited by this university.

“We need to learn how to resist institutions that maintain oppression and act in genuine solidarity with the oppressed.”

Image: Inside the Gordon Aikman Occupation, via Joe Sullivan

The occupation of university buildings by student activists is not uncommon at Edinburgh, particularly during weeks where strike action has simultaneously taken place. 

The Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre was occupied for several weeks in 2018 by students expressing solidarity with striking staff.

Similarly, in February 2020 student activists reclaimed Appleton Tower with the same intentions. 

More recently, Youth in Resistance Edinburgh, formerly known as the Youth Climate Swarm Edinburgh, occupied the entrance of the Main Library in February of this year, to protest the university’s investment in fossil fuels and to force action on climate change.

Now that the current occupation has officially concluded, The Student created a poll on Instagram to find out just how effective the occupation of the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre really was. 

The Student asked students if they agreed with the intentions and nature of the occupation, and if they understood its aims.

Out of 84 students, 81 per cent told The Student that they supported the occupation.

Such a high figure is to be expected, particularly as the occupation occurred during and partly in support of strike action, echoing past expressions of student solidarity with striking staff members.

However, only 62 per cent of students (out of a total of 121) were aware of the occupation’s aims.

Many students expressed confusion over the groups’ intentions, arguing that they were not made clear enough. 

One student said: “I think it’s about too many things at once.”

Another echoed this, believing that the groups needed to focus more on one issue: “I can’t work out what their aim is!”

Many students believed that whilst the occupation had good intentions, no change would come from the university as a result. 

Speaking to The Student, one student said:

“Strikes are useless until students do something like this to back it up. But I still don’t think the university cares.”

Another student said: “I agree with the sentiment 100%, but university occupations never seem to get much done.”

One student told The Student:

“Sometimes I wonder if the university is bothered anymore if a building is occupied. 

“That said, there’s definitely still a point to be made through it.

“It seems to me like they fully expect something like this to happen now, so maybe the impact is lessened?”

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “We support the right of people to protest lawfully and peacefully and we are working with the students to ensure their safety and provide for their basic needs.” In relation to the strike action, the university said:

“The University of Edinburgh, working alongside Universities UK (UUK) – which represents around 150 universities across the UK – is continuing to engage with UCU on the USS dispute. 

“We hope that the sector and UCU can resolve the dispute without the need for further industrial action.”

Edinburgh University Students’ Association expressed support for the strike action, encouraging students to show solidarity. They said:

“The Students’ Association, as guided by Student Council policy, wishes to reaffirm its support for the Industrial Action called by the University and College Union (UCU).

“This action comes after repeated resistance by members of University of Edinburgh leadership to the meeting of demands made to them by UCU Edinburgh, surrounding the pay and working conditions of Edinburgh staff. 

“Senior leadership at the University have also consistently refused to support UCU’s position in the nationwide dispute over the USS pension scheme, supporting massive cuts to the future pensions of current staff.

“We believe solidarity between staff and students is essential to improving the education we all hope to receive and provide. 

“Therefore, we would encourage our members to support their striking staff during this week of action; by not crossing picket lines, educating your peers on the disputes, and by emailing University leadership voicing your support.”

Clarification: When this article was first published, it stated that ‘The university has not yet released a statement in response to the occupation.‘. This statement is corrected to ‘A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “We support the right of people to protest lawfully and peacefully and we are working with the students to ensure their safety and provide for their basic needs.”‘

Featured image via Jack Charters