11 days ago a group of Manchester University students occupied a building on the university campus in protest of Israel's actions towards the Gaza Strip. This movement has become infamous all across the university. They have since refused to move from their single room in the Simon Building until their pro-Palestine demands are met.
During my brief tenure at this institution, I’ve picked up a few facts about student politics. The first fact is that student politics is by and large an exercise in futility and pointlessness. The students involved are the vocal majority; those who don’t know how to form an argument, cannot make a point without rhetoric, and don’t know how the university structure actually works. The second fact is that when things do actually change, they do so incrementally as a result of laborious bureaucracy and the slow steady work of patient students who are willing to act as a raindrop painstakingly eroding through the rock of the faculty.
As a consequence of these two facts, the Manchester Occupation will not and should not succeed. The Occupation arises from a simple category mistake: thinking of the university as a small-scale society rather than a learning institution. When one is embroiled in student lifestyle, it is easy to think of the university as a community. People live, work, eat, drink, and interact there 24/7 – they confuse their lifestyle for reality. In truth, the university is nothing more than a glorified school and – though I may not like it – a business. Fundamentally this means that it is not a political body. There is absolutely no reason why the university should take any stand at all on the Israel/Gaza conflict (which, incidentally, has by and large ended for now). Will it make any difference when Israel hears that Manchester University condemns their expansionist attacks? Will Palestine be so grateful at the support of a university thousands of miles away? No. The Student Union may be involved in politics (or rather the mini-politics of the perceived ‘university society’) but the University itself is not. That is why most of the Occupation’s demands are ill-conceived. The movement is ineffectual primarily because they are not interfering with the running of the university in any way.
As usual, Vice-Chancellor Alan Gilbert is the target of the student’s ire. Within Manchester University, and particularly in the grassroots movements that spring up every so often, Gilbert is presented as a megalomaniacal super-villain who sits in his fortified office rolling around on piles of the student’s money. Most of this reputation stems from his bureaucratic background and his failure to turn the University of Melbourne into a profitable business. I dislike Gilbert’s capitalist philosophy as much as anyone but he has chosen his path and I recognise that he is not a bad guy. On Wednesday, after a series of pro-Palestine amendments were voted through at a meeting of the student body (or rather ‘the vocal majority’ of the student body), I heard a crowd of students marching towards Gilbert’s office chanting “Palestinea, Palestinea”. When Gilbert (unsurprisingly) refused to talk to the 900 students blockading his building, the mob stopped traffic along Oxford Road.
The psychology behind the Occupation’s actions is simple: the students feel the need to make a difference. The government has set unrealistic targets such as getting 50-60% of young people into university. This is foolish because only a small majority of the population are suited to further learning. Many come to university without the insatiable desire for learning and so feel the urge to do something important. The current Occupation lacks the wherewithal and the focus to harass the actual government and so they protest within their ‘university society’. Unfortunately their protest is ineffectual, annoying, and ill-conceived. Some people feel the need to fight and when the fight is just and worthy that’s fine, noble, and good. But this fight is against a straw man and it’s a fight that does not need fighting. Manchester University is less than politically neutral: it’s not even a political entity. Any effort to change its political standing is therefore misguided.
Israel/Palestine is a complex issue. Yes, Israel has been expanding steadily and oppressing Muslims for decades. But Hamas has been firing rockets into Israeli territory. There’s blame on both side – I just happen to believe that there’s more blame on the Israeli side. The loss of life is a tragedy but that does not give justification to any actions committed in its name. The Occupation will fail, whether the students give up the fight and the university takes action. The movement is a futile waste of time for students who value their basic liberal political motivations over the education they are paying for.