Over the past few weeks, staff at Goldsmiths and many other universities across the country have been on strike, taking action against falling pay, a gender and ethnic pay gap, precarious employment practices and changes to the pension scheme.
In tandem with this direct action, the Laurie Grove Baths art studios (located on campus off Laurie Grove) have been occupied by the “Student Strike Hub”, a space run by and for students, hosting workshops, meetings and film screenings, and have had talks and visits from major artists such as Jeremy Deller and Harold Offeh. The Hub has also been set up in response to “Evolve Goldsmiths”, the future plan for the university’ development by Frances Corner, our new Warden as of last year. Although described by Corner as: “our action plan to secure a brighter future for the university”, the scheme has been met with a furious backlash from members of the Strike Hub and the closely affiliated online group “Art Schools are Dying” (@artschoolsaredying), who have billed it as the “neoliberal marketisation” of higher education.
I went down to the Strike Hub to talk to some of its members and find out more about their aims, ideas and values. The following is what I heard and learned through group interviews.
For people who don’t know what the Student Strike Hub is about, what is it and how does it relate to the strikes?
- It’s a space where we can get people together and into a room, and I think the main reason behind why we started it was to get more of a communal atmosphere on the [Fine Art] course, and then it tied in really well with the strikes, where we could have a space which allowed people to chat and meet other people, but then also talk about strikes and direct action against “Evolve Goldsmiths”, which is what we’re focussing on at the moment
So is this directly linked to “Art Schools are Dying”? Or is it separate?
- It overlaps quite a bit because lots of ASAD things are being done in the Hub, so people have started working with them through that, but we’re not officially connected
- They concern different issues
- The Strike Hub is more like a platform for other action groups to come in to host meetings and events, discussions, workshops, anything
- Yeah, I’d say it’s more physical, because ASAD is more of a promotional, Instagram publication kind of thing. The Strike Hub is a place where we can physically organise
ASAD has published a full manifesto. Do you have a similar list of demands/aims or are you just tied with the strikes and the UCU?
- Well the Strike Hub is a community space which we hope to continue whether related to the strikes or not, depending on what happens
- I think a big thing that we want to do is to ensure that it continues after the strike, primarily as a communal and collaborative space
And would that be here, or would you have to move somewhere else?
- It depends on what kind of space we could get
Have you had any reaction from Goldsmiths?
- It’s been acknowledged by the tutors and the Head of Department. Right in the beginning they needed to talk to us informally, so they just went here, but now there’s all these meetings. The anti-racist meeting was held here, which was big recognition from the department, and just means that we actually did need this space
- I think what also came out of that conversation was that it’s important for the university to acknowledge that they should facilitate communal spaces like the Strike Hub. Although we have built it, we also want a permanent space, we want to open it up to even more people and have it as a permanent fixture. The university has a responsibility to provide those kinds of spaces
- It feels like especially for us, who do the art courses, the way it’s advertised before you go here is like you’re all together, doing stuff together, which is actually not really the case, but now it is
- We’ve made it the case
- We’re lucky, as art students, that we have this space that we can use, but other courses have no space which they can actually take ownership of and feel a part of the university
- Even courses that are related to the arts, like Arts Computing, have no space
I think that’s an important point in connection to the strikes and “Evolve Goldsmiths”. A big part of this was taking ownership, physical ownership, of our university, our environment, and it’s in the form of a kind of occupation within the bounds of the institution. We’re trying to say that we own this space, we’re going to use it to facilitate connections and workshops, but then also facilitate discussions and dialogue and also action against “Evolve Goldsmiths”. I think a lot of it is about ownership
It feels like it’s quite specific to Goldsmiths, do you think there’s been a shift in how the university has been operating in the past few, or even 10 or 20 years?
- Well we weren’t here 20 years ago…
- I guess it all kind of ties into the idea of the marketisation of education, especially art education. By reclaiming space and just trying to bring back that communal spirit of what art degrees are all about, but also opening it up to everyone
- It feels like now we’re paying so much for our degrees, that we’re treated as consumers. I think there were much lower stakes in the past. University was free, or at least much more affordable, but now we pay so much, that has meant that the cohort is different, because it’s only people that can afford to go to university that come now
- I guess it’s a paradoxical power dynamic, of paying for something but not having any rights as a consumer as such. I feel like the power dynamic between us and the SMT has shifted in the wrong direction given that we’re paying them. Whereas you’d think if you weren’t paying for something then you’d be more at the behest of the provider, but somehow that’s been flipped. We just went on an exchange to Hamburg where they don’t pay any fees, and there is a much greater sense of ownership of their own institution
How do you think that can change? The Strike Hub is obviously something that’s happening right now, but I guess the question is how you get these ideas right to the top?
- Well I think the thing that we need to remember is the fact that all this stuff was actually born out of changes to the university, which is actually going to make the situation that we had last year even worse
- I think that’s the problem that we have, it’s our frustration with a lack of agency because we’re here putting in labour trying to convince senior staff members to do the jobs they should already be doing before we can make any progressive change to the situation we have now. What they’re effectively doing is producing problems through their ineptitude, making it harder to complain and change these things. So it’s only the start of a longer process, if we see any success, but first we have to get them to change the way they’re running things and then progressive change can actually be made to education
- It’s also just proving that they have no idea what they’re doing
- It’s a play on power
- By us reclaiming or just owning the space that we’re supposed to have, and still self-running, with so much activity going on around the Strike Hub with workshops and teach-outs, it proves that management doesn’t teach, and management is clueless. They need to start listening to the staff and students that actually are the ones providing education and getting that education. I think that that massive gap between management and student experience is the problem
I suppose it’s quite tricky because you’re only here for three years, and you’re trying to do a degree at the same time.
- Yeah, and also, particularly with the Fine Art course, there is that intense individualism which is basically what the Hub is trying to counteract, we’re trying get a community together whilst the university is kind of neoliberalising us. We spent half our time, before we did this, trying to think of ways of making things more communal
- That’s why it’s so important to try and find a permanent space or spaces so that these kinds of structures can exist after we leave, and that we really fight for the future students so they won’t be exploited and taken advantage of
And for people wanting to get involved, is it just a case of turning up?
- Yeah, that’s what this space is, it’s sort of just to come, to be around people physically to talk, because a lot of the stuff that’s going on is all on your phone, everyone’s phones are pinging, so here you can just be in a space and talk to people in real life and do some stuff
- And hanging out
- Cos the strikes have been so long, it’s really easy to get kind of lost and lonely
- People have also come to us with their ideas and that’s how we host it. We run our own things in the space as people who are involved in the Strike Hub, but basically anyone can get involved by just asking when there’s a slot for them to do their thing. It’s kind of anarchist in that way, in the sense that we’re organising, not informally but through conversations and not with a rule-based system, or a thing that we necessarily stand for that covers everything
As we finished, I wanted to make sure I’d got everyone’s names, but instead there was a unanimous decision to remain individually anonymous.
- As a communal space it feels more constructive to engage with everyone
- Speak as one
- In a sense, and I know it’s a strong term, it is an anarchist way of collectivising ourselves because there isn’t a border between the people who produced this space and people who have come in at different times and engaged with it in different ways, so I think it’s more important that we’re symbolically just…students
The Strike Hub is open for the rest of this week, is open to students from all courses and information on events and films etc. can be found online in the Student Strike Hub Facebook group.
Words and images, Joseph Hewlett-Hall