At the start of the academic year something unusual happened at Loughborough University. Whereas undergraduates normally avoid politics on campus a small group got together to discuss a campaign to encourage the university to take their investments out of fossil fuels. Initially the Loughborough People and Planet campaign had the support of Loughborough Students’ Union (LSU) and their officer concerned with ethics and the environment, James Jones. However, any support from LSU faded when the group decided they wanted to do more than simply ask politely.
LSU is effectively run as an arm of the university. The Chief Operating Officer of the university, Richard Taylor, sits on the Board of Trustees. He is the man responsible, ultimately, for student discipline. It’s all very cosy and deeply troubling. From the moment students arrive on campus they are channelled into certain behaviours. If you ask LSU to campaign against tuition fees, you’re told that the union is apolitical. Meanwhile in halls you are introduced into a life of sports rivalry and hall chanting where the fresher’s week is spent learning about why you hate the other halls and why Loughborough is the best place ever. I bumped into a friend who studied here a few years ago recently. She said “when I left it took me a while to adjust to life away from Loughborough. I realised that I’d been brainwashed”.
The roads on the campus are lined with lampposts which hold banners proclaiming the university as the number 1 for the student experience and the university’s position in the rankings alongside other institutions. The twitter and facebook feeds are a constant stream of tedious propaganda about what an amazing place Loughborough University is. It is impossible to escape these messages on campus and online as a student there. People just conform to it as it becomes their new normal after leaving home. On top of this campus security are always on hand should people stray. This is a university that does not take any form of dissent lightly.
People don’t start political campaigns at Loughborough. They ask politely, they get told ‘no’ firmly and then they move on. Not this year. This year is different. The People and Planet group decided to start by resurrecting a petition that was started years ago, ironically by someone at LSU in presumably a slightly more political year. It hadn’t got very far, perhaps understandably. In a matter of weeks though the new group added hundreds of names to the petition. The demands are simple. That Loughborough University divests from fossil fuel companies and publishes a timetable for doing so.
They had also sent a letter to the Vice Chancellor asking for their aims to be met but VC Bob (as the students affectionately call him) replied by bizarrely stating he refused to reply to a nameless collective. He wanted an individual to talk to. This attempt to individualise the collective struggle of the group was rejected. Incidentally the love for the VC is another sad and strange aspect of life at Loughborough. Even in a year when he gets a £19k pay rise for just going to meetings and talking at people he seems to command respect from students getting into debt so he can lead a charmed existence. It was time for action.
The first action the students did was to chalk messages across campus in orange, the colour of divestment. Campus security turned up very quickly and they spent hours hosing down the messages because they were embarrassed. In the weeks that followed the group has plastered posters all over campus, done banner drops conducted a more elaborate chalk protest outside the main university offices and managed to get into the vice chancellors office to deliver a sarcastic Christmas card. Just last week they set up a tombstone and laid dead flowers near the main university entrance mourning the death of lecturer’s pensions and the planet. With this action they stood in solidarity with striking UCU members.
Before Christmas they were granted a meeting with the university management. They decided to attend on the assurance that the meeting would be to discuss how the university intended to make divestment a reality. Instead they were handed a statement informing them that any further action would result in disciplinary procedures under a catch all rule about bringing the university into disrepute. I risk disciplinary action writing this and so this is posted under an assumed name. Our campaign has and will continue and we now know we are having an impact.
Minutes that have handily been placed on the university website show that senior managers have discussed both the issue and the campaign. The sustainability sub-committee sat on January 16th . Managers noted that the sustainability team on campus agrees with the students on the issue. It is also noted that there may be a cost to divesting and that that wonderful man of the people, James Jones at LSU, is against divestment if it harms the ‘student experience’. Now, that’s short sighted but what can we expect from a man who actually sat with management at the meeting where they threatened the group with disciplinary action?
Loughborough University is obsessed with keeping order on campus. It subdues students into a life of sport and booze and steers all talk of politics elsewhere. The student experience is all that matters, and of course the increasing salaries of the richest people who work there. The bottom line seems to be more students and more money. Doing the right thing comes second. Thankfully there is a group of Loughborough students who have broken the programming and after asking politely won’t accept ‘no’ on the issue of climate catastrophe.
The campaign continues.