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“We are the University”: an interview with students occupying the George Square Lecture Theatre

ByEmily Hall

Mar 22, 2018

Students and staff have had a constant presence at George Square Lecture Theatre since last Tuesday – sleeping, eating and fostering a new sense of community – all in solidarity with UCU industrial action. It is an “open occupation,” with people coming and going.

“What we’ve actually accomplished here is amazing,” one of the occupiers told The Student, “We are essentially running a small campus.” Walls are covered in paper where visitors are invited to answer questions about education and next steps. “Teach outs,” lectures given by and open to everyone, take place daily at the lecture theatre.

The students interviewed emphasised the significance of having lecturers choose topics they are excited about. One student expressed empathy with the disillusion some lecturers might be feeling after having their pensions cut, working hard to get into academia and watching tired students drag themselves to 9AM classes and struggle to manage the pressure of exams. “Everyone who is in a teach out wants to be there,” one of them commented.

Another student said that they had conversed more with staff and lecturers during the occupation than they had ever during the entirety of their university experience combined. Going forward with the movement, they want to work hard to “keep the atmosphere of genuine interest.”

Their project extends well beyond the lecture theatre. Every room of the once mysterious building has been transformed. During the interview there were conversations happening, meetings taking place and even a live drawing class in session. They have a “craftivism” station, a small library, gender neutral bathrooms, a “safe space” along with a team of welfare officers and a kitchen.

“It’s very easy to burn out in an environment when you’re facing so much opposition,” one student reflected, but “students are getting more out of it than just one hour of a teach-out.” “They are getting something they really need.” They explained that the criticism goes hand in hand with their project.

“We are challenging the perception that education happens in one institution, in one space,” a student said. “Education is lifelong,” said another, going on to explain that, without the pressure of qualifications they have been sharing skills such as knitting and drawing. The gap between lectures during the day and relaxation at night seems lesser. Rather, constant learning is at the heart of their project, made possible with an emphasis on community and wellness.

Every night they have an open meeting led by a different individual where they discuss ideas and issues, making decisions via consensus. “It’s very egalitarian,” they explained. “It’s a completely horizontal organization.” “We play off of each other’s strengths.” Some students have been in the building more continuously than others, and “there is no stereotypical idea of what an occupier is.” They encourage anyone interested to walk in the door and start a conversation. “There is no pressure to stay,” they emphasise, saying that while one person might come in, express interest and come back with a sleeping bag for three days, another might come in, clean a little bit and leave.

The students we spoke to had written multiple essays for their university courses and continued to attend lectures and tutorials whilst occupying the building. They clearly care about their own education, and were disappointed by the administration’s handling of the strikes that spurred their movement. “They are treating students more like consumers,” one said. They want to ask “fundamental questions –  what is education? Is it what we are seeing now [from the University of Edinburgh?]” One student shook her head, remarking that during the strikes she “didn’t feel like the University cared about the value or quality of our education.”

Their criticisms of the multi-million dollar “Edinburgh Futures Institute” seem more pointed alongside their enthusiasm for the “education [they are] creating” for everyone, for free, in their university building. “We are taking control of a university space we have every right to be in,” they told us. “We are the University.”

On the first day, they reported some contact with security checked in with individuals responsible for fire safety, but have not been in contact with the University since then. The University quietly allows their new educational initiative to continue alongside classes and tutorials with the building’s wifi and electricity uninterrupted. As far as “negotiations” go, the students were cooperative with the removal of their banner on 50 George Square when security asked them to remove it but they have no plans of evacuating the lecture theatre. Their next steps are to get more people engaged. “Walk through the door,” one student encouraged. “We want to chat.”

Image: Andrew Perry

By Emily Hall

As a writer, Emily contributes to news, features, comment, science & technology, lifestyle, tv & radio, culture and sport. This native Seattlite is a cake pop enthusiast who can regularly be found trying to make eye-contact with stranger’s dogs on the streets of Edinburgh.

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