If security at universities isn’t for students, who is it for?

Students arrested for inadvertently being in the same building as Princess Anne, heavy handed policing of careers fair protests – if universities aren’t for students, who are they for?

by Adam Ramsay via opendemocracy.net

On Tuesday, a group of students at Sheffield university decided to protest against the presence of arms companies at a careers fair at their university. Footage filmed by the student paper shows what happened. After lying, covered in fake blood, in the middle of the fair, a number of them were dragged across the floor and out of the room with some force, and sustained cuts and bruises.

The story led to some controversy, and was tweeted by a number of prominent journalists and activists. The idea that arms manufacturers have more right to a place on a university campus than student activists is a dangerous one, as is the notion that security guards ought to be able to use force on students any more than you or I are. University campuses ought primarily to be for students and academics, for learning and research – with all of the mess and debate that entails – not pristine air conditioned cells for corporate recruitment.

But this isn’t the first time that these issues have arisen this academic year. Earlier this semester, two Edinburgh University students – Hona-Luisa Cohen-Fuentes and Euan Kidston – were sat in the university’s iconic Georgian Old College building, studying. Hona says she was reading Peter Van Inwag’s essay “changing the past”, and was wearing “a long blue skirt and a pink flowery shirt and a bowler hat”.

Euan described to me what happened next: “a janitor and servitor (the people employed by the university to run their buildings) aggressively demanded to see identification and called security….”

“The janitor demanded to know who I was and what I was doing, and said the whole building was closed.”

Euan explained that he was a student, and was studying, and showed his student card. Hona didn’t have her student ID on her. The students say the university employed security guards then attempted to prevent them from leaving the building, including by physically pushing Euan and trying to hold him down, and blocking Hona’s way. Hona says that the security shouted at her, including mentioning that the police were coming. She told them that if she was arrested, she might be deported, and one of them replied: “I hope you are”.

The students, aware that university employees had no right to detain them, managed to escape through a back exit, and left the building. Outside they were stopped by officers from Police Scotland.

They were asked to wait in the quadrangle for what Hona says was about an hour, and the police explained what was going on: the new university Chancellor, Princess Anne, was borrowing an office in the building for the day. Euan and Hona are both involved in the student union, which has policy condemning the process which led to The Princess Royal’s appointment to the position.

After about an hour, in which time Euan says that he also saw at least twenty armed royal protection officers, the two students were handcuffed, put in the back of a police van, and driven to the nearby (and famous) Saint Leonard Street Police Station.

Once there, they say they were read their rights, held in separate police cells, had DNA swabs taken from their cheeks, and searched by a bomb expert who had been called in from Edinburgh airport. They say they were prevented from washing their hands when they went to the toilet. This may, they say they were told, destroy evidence in the form of traces of explosives. Hona says that the police also said that the students’ fingerprints would be searched against a terrorist database, though in the end, their prints were never taken. Four and a half hours later, they were released without charge.

Euan said a week later he was “ok-ish now” but that he had “been a bit sick and stressed the past few days dealing with it all”.

A Police Scotland spokesman said: “During a security check at an Edinburgh University venue on Tuesday 8th October two people were found within a restricted area and were subsequently detained.

“They were later released without charge.”

The same day, a couple of streets away, the university careers fair was going on. As has happened every year for at least a decade, students were protesting against one of the companies there – this year, like their friends in Sheffield this week, it was a company providing tools of war.

In the past, the routine has always been pretty familiar. Students show up, they find an amusing way to protest against the companies they most objected to, and after a while, university security arrive and ask them to leave. At this point, they’d take their protest outside.

This year, though, it was different. What happened was described by one of the students involved, Amabelle Crowe.

When students arrived at the careers fair, she says, the police were already there. She and one other student went inside and stood by the stall of Babcock International – the private defence company they had chosen to protest against. They handed out leaflets, held up a banner reading “warning, arms companies at work, this is not OK” and spoke to their fellow students.

The Edinburgh careers fair, with fake police tape and a leafleting student

Soon, three police officers arrived – two men, one woman. One of the men, Amabelle thinks, was a sergeant. They asked the students to move. The students said that they weren’t blocking the way to the stall, and that they had a right to be there. The police officers then threatened the students with breach of the peace, and told them that they had to give them their details so that this ‘crime’ could be investigated.

History doesn’t relate whether they also discussed the matter of peace with the military company involved.

The following day, the careers fair still going on, it was RBS who were targeted by students. When they got there, the police were again waiting. When they left, Amabelle tells me, officers again demanded that the students identify themselves. The students replied that, in the UK, people have no legal obligation to do so. The police responded that they were required to under the terrorism act. Again, Amabelle outlined the conversation:

Amabelle: “Are you genuinely saying that you think we are terrorists?”

Police officer: “yes, I suspect you of being a terrorist”.

The four police officers present took the details of the four students they apparently suspected of being terrorists.

Back in January, another Edinburgh student says she was walking to a bus stop on campus when she saw a surprising number of police officers. She took a photo of them. One of the officers, she says, then followed her and physically blocked her from getting onto her bus. The student secretly recorded the conversation that followed. One officer demanded that she give them her details, and, when she refused, he said she was legally obliged to. He then claimed that she had witnessed a robbery and so was required to give them her name and address under Section 13 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. She later established through a Freedom of Information Request that that was a lie. No robbery was reported in the area that day.

The photo taken by the student

The truth was that the officers were there, again, to protect Princess Anne. In this case, the student was relatively familiar with the law. She complained to the police, and was told that the officer involved was disciplined. How many students have been similarly treated on their own campuses but not complained is, of course, impossible to know. Most don’t have the legal knowledge to challenge a lying police officer, nor the experience of the police to see the value in recording what they say.

The University of Edinburgh, commented on these incidents:

“We take campus security very seriously and work closely with students and the police when necessary.

“Our first thoughts are always the security and wellbeing of our students, staff and visitors to the University.

“If anyone has a concern about the way in which we seek to ensure campus security, we have a complaints procedure that is designed to ensure that any grievances are properly investigated and are given careful and fair consideration.”

Police Scotland were contacted about these incidents, but said that they could not contact the officers involved. When provided with their badge numbers, they didn’t get back.

It’s not just Edinburgh and Sheffield. Students at the University of East Anglia complained of an unusually “heavy police presence” during freshers’ week this year, with one student there saying that he felt “intimidated” by them.

Similarly, there were controversies around a police drugs raid at Royal Holloway Student Union earlier on the 27th of September, with students claiming that the police singled out black students and student union sabbaticals condemning the action as “deeply concerning” and saying they are investigating claims of racial profiling, and students saying that they felt intimidated. The vice-president of the University of London Union ended up being arrested during the raid, after he apparently attempted to “obstruct the search of two black students”. The police say they searched those students to whom drug-sniffer dogs responded, but that no drugs were found.

Some students are responding to what they see as a broken relationship with the police. Last academic year, the council – elected student representatives – of the Birmingham University Guild of Students passed a policy saying that police officers should only be allowed into the Guild building with the explicit permission of the elected democratic leadership. This policy was, however, over-ruled by the board of trustees of the Guild, which includes Emma Thompson – an officer with the Westmidlands Police and chair of the Police Association of Higher Education Liaison Officers.

Students at SOAS are luckier. One of them got in touch to say that, when two of their friends had been trailed on the way back to the campus from a protest last month, they were able to tell the police stalking them that they weren’t welcome on the campus. SOAS students have what they call a “cops not welcome” policy. Greece used to have a law banning the police from all university campuses. Tensions in the UK haven’t reached that stage yet, but the conflict which flared during the 2010 student protests is still alive.

Universities exist to advance and disseminate human knowledge. This means that they don’t exist to drive profits or recruitments for large companies, nor to pay homage to the royal family. Sweeping aside students’ rights and voices – including their right sometimes to complain about what’s happening at their campus in ways which are a bit inconvenient, means sweeping aside the very purpose of these institutions.

When this is done in the name of large corporations, it tells us something very worrying about contemporary universities and whose interests it is they feel the need to prioritise. Who is protected from whom is a very easy way to tell who and what an institution cares about most. If university security officers are starting to see students not as those they are protecting, but those they are guarding against, then who is it that universities are there for?

More generally, university administrations – run usually by white middle class and middle aged academics – might not see a tension between the police and security guards on the one hand, and students on the other. But many students – particularly, those who aren’t white, and those who have ever been on a protest, often feel differently.