Sunday 4 December 2011

Space: The Political Frontier

Just when I thought that we were entering a quiet phase in the campaign to keep Classics intact at Royal Holloway, things have suddenly hotted up.

Last Wednesday a group of students peacefully occupied the charged space of the main building’s east wing (sometimes known as ‘Testosterone Corridor’) leading to the Principal's office. They are demanding that management helps students more financially, allows them greater representation on Council, and lifts all the threats of redundancy from the Department of Classics & Philosophy. 

Several of them are signed up for courses in Classics or Ancient History. They play guitars and read poetry; they are orderly and civil; they have charmed the friendly security men posted all around them; they are coming and going to their lectures and diligently writing essays on laptops and iPads.

The young people outside Paul Layzell's door, beneath the portraits of former Principals, are symbolically taking back ownership of Higher Education. They are asking politely but firmly to be allowed a real part in decisions about the curriculum and funding.

They are also very brave. Layzell has form when it comes to heavy-handed reactions to student activism. There exists on Youtube a film clip of assaults made by riot police on peaceful protestors at Sussex University on  4 March 4 2010. Layzell was Deputy Vice-Chancellor there at the time and had tried to implement swingeing cuts. 

His appointment at Royal Holloway was ratified by our Council precisely two weeks later.

The classicists among the Royal occupiers know that there is a precedent for their policy — which in my youth long ago we used to call a ‘sit-in’ — provided by a famous ancient play.  

Most people associate Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata with the women's sex strike. But the most effective tactic they employ in their bid for a voice in the administration of their state actually has nothing to do with sex. It is their occupation of the Acropolis, the civic and religious central space of Athens in which the public money was kept.

Lysistrata and the women want control over the exchequer because the men have created a hopeless crisis in both domestic and international politics. When the self-regarding city magistrate orders his battalion of thuggish Scythian archers (the ancient equivalent of riot police with batons and pepper sprays) to evict the women, he suffers a physical, moral and intellectual defeat.   

Lysistrata teaches him a lesson he will never forget in how to run a community's finances without incurring intolerable human costs.

The Royal Holloway occupation mirrors similar student initiatives on campuses up and down the country. For the cause of this particular occupation of course can't be understood in isolation from the government's plans for HE in the UK, which is to turn universities into commercial enterprises regardless of the deleterious impact this will have on the quality, accessibility and diversity of intellectual work in our country. 
It was almost exactly a year ago, on 9th December 2010, when the coalition government pushed through the education 'reforms' which proved to be the crunch psychologically for all financially fixated UK university managers. The first anniversary of that lamentable decision will be a suitable occasion for a performance of Lysistrata's great speech on fiscal policy and morale in Management Corridor next week.


  1. Hey,

    Great post! Would you like to write a few paragraphs for the rhul women against cuts blog.


  2. Writing essays on iPads does not make you seem like a student struggling with fees.