From coffee and a chat to fines and a criminal record
Here you can read Omnibus’ summary of what took place between two Wednesdays in mid-November when the student movement ‘A different university’ put a spoke in the wheels at Aarhus University by blockading the senior management team from entering the Rector's Office at Nordre Ringgade 1 for six days. And followed that up by preventing up to 200 participants from getting into a conference with the government's Expert Committee on Quality in Higher Education in the Student House at AU.
Wednesday 19 November: Day 1
Approximately one hundred students from the ‘A different university’ movement establish a blockade at 7:00 in the morning and prevent Rector Brian Bech Nielsen, Pro-rector Berit Eika and their secretariat from gaining access to the Rector’s Office on Nordre Ringgade 1 in Aarhus.
‘A different university’ proclaims that the blockade will last until Minister for Higher Education and Science Sofie Carsten Nielsen (of the Danish Social Liberal Party) tears up the study progress reform and the plan for degree programme resizing.
The student movement makes it clear that they are intent on a peaceful action and the atmosphere between the senior management team and the protesters is good on this cold November morning. Some of the students are sitting on their own while they drink coffee on the stairs in the Rector's Office. Others are talking in small groups. But the majority appear to be reading, taking notes and busily highlighting important points in what is most probably the syllabus for the coming exam.
Good to see active students
Deputy Director Kirsten Jensen from the Rector’s Office and eight staff members are among those who are being prevented from reaching their offices. The deputy director takes a pragmatic view:
"I think it's good that the students are active, even though I question whether they have chosen the right type of action. But it’s good to see some young people who don’t appear to be the type who don’t give a hoot about anyone but themselves, as I assume they’re not just protesting because they’re sorry for themselves. As long as they behave properly they have a democratic right to carry out their protest. If we can find a way to do our job today then I guess we can tomorrow as well."
Increasing pressure and stress
Among the protesters is fifth-semester history of ideas student Frederik Ingvardt Pedersen. He says he is participating in the blockade for many reasons. But he highlights the study progress reform among the reasons because he believes that it contributes to placing the students under undue stress:
"I find that it puts us under pressure in relation to quicker completion when we should, in fact, have the opportunity for in-depth study," he says.
Frederik Ingvardt Pedersen's participation should also be seen as a break with the passivity that he finds characterises many of the students today when it comes to involvement in student politics.
"We’re here to defend the university. Well, okay, maybe it’s too much to say that we are representing the whole university. But I’m here so I can, at least, influence its future."
Invitation to coffee with the dean
Allan Flyvbjerg, who is dean at Health, springs a surprise by welcoming the protesters with open arms.
"I brought them some coffee this morning and I’ve also said to them that they can just fetch a refill from the coffee machine in the corridor," says the dean. And in response to the question of why he seems so enthusiastic about the blockade, he explains:
"Well, it’s great to see that the students still have blood in their veins. Too few students are ready to stand up and be counted, so I think it's cool to see them getting so involved."
Cheap coffee on offer at the blockade
Approx. 200 students take part in a demonstration in the square in front of the Rector's Office at 10:00. Several are queuing to buy ‘blockade coffee’ which is being sold by the Student House for five kroner a cup in honour of the occasion.
The first speaker at the demonstration is student Søren Mou, who is also one of the two spokespersons for ‘A different university’. Among the other speakers are Tabish Khair, who is associate professor at the Department of Aesthetics and Communication, and representatives from the Student Council, the Danish Association of Upper Secondary School Students and the National Federation of Business College Students.
A greeting from the rector
Pro-rector Berit Eika also gives a short spontaneous speech which she begins with a greeting from the rector.
"I think it's good to see the students getting involved in their education and to see them fighting for the fact that getting an education ought to be about much more than being effective because quality is about much more than that. For example, it’s about being able to show commitment," says the pro-rector afterwards to Omnibus.
Birit Eika also underlines that the senior management team has no plans to call the East Jutland Police and have the protesters removed from the Rector's Office.
"They are welcome as long as they behave like they’re doing now. Of course, things are a little impractical, but we have no intention of calling the police."
Friday 21 November Day 3
The protesting students tell Omnibus that they’re in good form when we drop by for a cup of morning coffee in the occupied Rector's Office. They also report continued support from the students and the duty roster hanging by the door to the Rector's Office is also over-subscribed.
‘A different university’ announces on Twitter and elsewhere that it will expand the blockade to include a conference on Wednesday 26 November with the government's Committee for the Quality and Relevance of Higher Education (known as the Quality Commission) in the Student House at AU. At the conference the committee will present its suggestions for quality and relevance in higher education.
Sunday 23 November Day 5
Spokesperson Søren Mou explains the reason for the expansion of the blockade:
"The Quality Commission's composition lays bare its ideological foundation: Three directors from the private sector and four economists. Such a composition means that the answer - what is quality - is already given in advance because quality is equated with relevance to the business community. We disagree that relevance to the business community should be the yardstick for quality."
The other spokesperson, student Esben Bøgh Sørensen, explains:
"The committee confirms a certain understanding of what a university is - an understanding that has become tendentious during the last 10 or 15 years. It’s all about turning the university into a vocational college. Based on these considerations we have decided to blockade the Quality Commission's presentation on Wednesday."
Both underline that ‘A different university’ considers the Quality Commission to be illegitimate.
The Quality Commission must not be obstructed
Pro-rector Berit Eika is unaware that the protesters are planning a blockade to prevent the Quality Commission from presenting its report. But there is no mistaking her point of view when Omnibus explains the situation. And asks what the senior management team will do if the protesters blockade the conference:
"I certainly don’t believe that the Quality Commission should be prevented from presenting its report. We have chosen to cooperate with the student protesters. At the moment we’re making use of temporary offices which is, of course, not a tenable situation as both management and the secretariat staff have the right and duty to carry out their work. But we have chosen this approach because we fundamentally don’t want a confrontation with students who wish to make their views known. I hope they will show themselves to be worthy of that trust - and I believe they will."
Monday 24 November Day 5
The senior management team begin a new week with a continuing blockade by sending an open letter to the protesters.
"We wish to see the blockade ended now," writes Pro-rector Berit Eika on behalf of the senior management team, before continuing:
"As far as we have been informed, the blockade is due to your dissatisfaction with a number of politically agreed reforms such as the study progress reform and the model for degree programme resizing. These are political decisions which the employees at Aarhus University who are affected by the blockade have not been party to. They have therefore become part of this blockade through no fault of their own."
Will uphold the blockade
Spokesperson Esben Bøgh Sørensen makes clear that the senior management team's open letter will have no bearing on the protester’s position:
"Of course we will uphold the blockade just as we have announced from the beginning."
At a public meeting in the evening, the students pen a reply to the management's open letter, which they will send the following day.
Tuesday 25 November Day 6
However, the students never get to send their letter to the management. At 4:30 in the morning, East Jutland Police wake the ten or so sleeping protesters and end the blockade in the Rector’s Office.
Nobody gets arrested. And nobody receives a fine.
"There’s not been any reason for a confrontation with the police, which we’re obviously pleased about," says Esben Bøgh Sørensen. However, the protesters are angry that the police removed the blockade before it was possible for them to send a reply to the senior management team.
The senior management team is not a third party
Omnibus publishes the open letter where the students write:
"Our blockade is a protest against the study progress reform and against the plans for degree programme resizing. We are staging a blockade because the university, which is a place for research, education and critical thinking, is being forced into becoming a vocational college.
We are well aware of the fact that we are protesting against political decisions made in the Danish parliament. We agree that the final responsibility lies with the minister. But we have to make clear that we certainly do not consider the Rector’s Office and the senior management team at Aarhus University to be a third party.
We believe that your acceptance and implementation of the study progress reform and compromise proposal in relation to the plans for degree programme resizing are completely unacceptable. When you implement the minister's bad decisions, you too become responsible for them."
Support from 39 PhD students
The PhD students at Arts have their own Facebook page on which a declaration of support for the protesters was posted in the afternoon together with a call to sign the declaration.
That the senior management team had got the police to remove the demonstrators was the final straw for many of the PhD students, who perhaps quietly sympathised with the protest against the current education policy all along.
When the three-hour deadline for signing the declaration passed, the declaration of support had been signed by 39 PhD students. The group agreed to send the declaration to Omnibus.
"AU's management had proclaimed their support for the blockade and that they would stand together in the fight against the reforms as long as the protesters behaved properly. Bearing this in mind, we deplore in the strongest terms the decision of the senior management team to deploy the police against the protesters and to have them removed in the dead of night instead of engaging in a common fight for the university," writes the group of PhD students.
Backing for the demands
One of the signatories, PhD student Nicolai von Eggers from the Department of Culture and Society, explains the background for the initiative:
"We wanted to support the student protesters in their demands and in what they stand for in relation to a different university. I would like to emphasise that the purpose of the statement of support is to encourage students, PhD students and staff to back a common fight for the university and the demands made by ‘A different university’.”
Wednesday 26 November Day 7
Around 150 demonstrating students are gathered at 11:00 to blockade the entrances to Stakladen in the Student House - and in this way prevent up to 200 participants in gaining access to the conference with the Quality Commission at which the committee will present its second report on how quality and relevance can be strengthened in higher education..
Two hours after the participants should have enjoyed a light lunch (scheduled for 11:45) as a prelude to the conference, the police take action. And the blockade is ended at 13:43. In connection with the action, 19 students are removed from the building with a charge of violating the Danish Criminal Code’s section 264 hanging over their heads. They are charged with refusing to leave the area despite being requested to do so by the senior management team. Neither of the two spokespersons are present when the police take action. Neither are they among the students being charged.
A small price to pay
Omnibus subsequently talked to several of the students who had been charged and all of them tell us that paying a fine is a small price to pay for experiencing such a sense of solidarity among the students.
"I’ve got involved in this because I can perhaps finally have the chance to be listened to as an ordinary student. And I decided to keep going until the end now that I’ve finally experienced solidarity among us students," says Signe Mortensen, who is studying Scandinavian language and literature.
"Also, as I’ve not that far into my degree programme, I thought it was better for me to have a criminal record rather than some of my fellow students who were further along in their studies."
Signe Mortensen is alluding to the fact that a criminal record can be expunged after a few years depending on the seriousness of the offence.
Facts: The days following the blockades
Thursday 27 November
The senior management team were strongly criticised from several sides for not withdrawing the police report against the 19 students. The Student Council at AU and the National Union of Students in Denmark were among those who criticised the management. And there were over one hundred objections against the senior management team on AU's official Facebook page.
Friday 28 November
The senior management team withdraw the police report they made against the 19 students who were charged.
‘A different university’ began at the University of Copenhagen. The student movement writes on Facebook that: "We challenge the dominant way of thinking and talking about the university today and present new ideals."
The Expert Committee on Quality in Higher Education works under the Ministry of Higher Education and Science. The committee is government appointed and its brief is to present recommendations for how quality and relevance can be strengthened in higher education.
The committee published its first report entitled New ways - tomorrow's higher education system in April and its second report with the title High goals - excellent teaching in higher education in November (both in Danish).
The Quality Commission’s work will conclude with an overall report before the end of the year.
Section 264 (1)(ii)
Any person who without proper cause fails to leave foreign ground after having been called upon to do so may be punished with a fine or imprisonment for up to six months.
University historian Palle Lykke from the University History Committee at AU has had a look in the archives to describe previous student protests at Aarhus University. The account can be read in Danish by following the link 'Police at Aarhus University in 1971’ in the electronic version of this article at omnibus.au.dk
"What would be a brave way to force the students out of the building? Should we grab some clubs ourselves and attack them? Kaare Bergh during an intense debate on 25 November for and against the blockade at AU on the ‘A different university’ Facebook page.
"How can you accuse the management of being undemocratic when you yourselves will prevent people from expressing themselves at the meeting in the morning?” Peter Lauritsen during an intense debate on 25 November on the ‘A different university’ Facebook page.
“The name tags of all the people who did not manage to get into the #kvaliudvalg(Quality Commission, ed) due to the blockade." Peter Dalsgaard in a tweet on 26 November, illustrated with a photo of unclaimed name tags on a table at the entrance to Stakladen.
Translated by Peter Lambourne.