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The GSA Occupation & Rally: A Breakdown by Peter Ferguson and Irene García Mir

On Tuesday 22nd May, a group of GSA students occupied the Nodus centre located across The Ivy. The action was supported by the Surrey Labour and Surrey, Cut the Rent societies, and stemmed as a response to the cuts to the courses of Theatre and Performance and Dance, who have recently been suspended. The action taken by students was not unpredictable, it was the breaking point of a cohort that has been failed by the university and abandoned by their school. Students occupied as a last resort after their concerns were ignored when put through official channels of communication offered by the university; what follows is the sequence of the events leading to and during the occupation.

A merger with GSA was agreed four years ago that moved the BA Theatre and Performance and BA Dance courses from the Faculty of Arts to GSA. Ever since the merger, the BA Theatre and Performance and BA Dance students have felt neglected by GSA as well as the University of Surrey, causing the problems that are manifesting today, such as the suspension of both courses.

This suspension was announced on May 1st, and it created many uncertainties that led to the occupation of the Nodus Centre this past Wednesday. Students entered the building at 14:00, occupying both floors, and waited to receive a response from management in regards to their demands, which were as follows:

To provide a transparent statement concerning the terms of closure, addressing the misinformation of ‘suspension’ vs ‘closure’. Otherwise, commit to reinstate the course and liaise with current students about the process.

To confirm that there will be no further redundancies or compulsory redundancies of all staff.

To confirm that the jobs of the Theatre and Performance team are secure.

To support our course giving it the time and resources that it has been starved off.

To confirm that optional modules will always be available to students currently enrolled.

To ensure that this year’s graduating cohort is represented at graduation with a relevant guest speaker, with assurances that the University of Surrey is clearly written on their certificates.

Within three hours of the occupation, both Sean McNamara (Head of GSA) and Lucy Evans (Chief Student Officer) entered the occupation to discuss the demands of the occupying students. However, the offer to communicate felt insincere to the students given the release of an interview with Sean McNamara at 15:33 in Backstage Magazine where he was criticising the effectiveness of academic drama courses from universities. BA Theatre and Performance is one of the implied inferior courses.

Management replied students’ demands 19:25 Thursday, over a full day after the start of the occupation. Before that, the occupiers released an open response to McNamara’s interview at midday.

On Friday morning at 08:34, the occupiers released a reply in rebuttal to senior management’s response to the original demands, claiming “it did not address the spirit of the original demands”.

The occupation ended on Friday at 12:00, 46 hours after the start of the occupation (biggest activism-led event since the two-week occupation of the Vice-Chancellor’s office in 1977). The occupation was followed by a rally that started from the Nodus Centre, carried on through to Senate House, and ended at The Front Room patio, in front of the Students’ Union.

From the experiences of the BA Theatre and Performance students, we can only conclude that the university has failed in its responsibility to properly provide good quality education and care for students throughout their degree and especially in this period of course “suspension”.

The Universities confusing use of the term 'suspension' in relation to the courses has been antagonistic and misrepresentative of the situation to the students currently enrolled and also those that wish to enrol in future years but have had to pause defer their application to GSA due to confusion over this. When courses are suspended, they are not technically discontinued, instead they are unavailable temporarily to new students with a plan to reintroduce the course at a later time with a revised curriculum and strategy to provide the best experience possible and to attract a large intake of applicants for the course. Senior management have not indicated that they have any plan whatsoever to reintroduce the course at a later date and have made no indication that they have any plan to improve the current situation the course more viable in their standards. This has led most people to believe that while the official term maybe 'suspension', the reality is that the course is closed. The damage has already been done to both the Dance and Theatre and Performance courses.

Sadly the issues within GSA and the University of Surrey are not spontaneous upsets in response to current events affecting the entire university sector. Instead they are the result of the degradation and neglect that the courses have experienced from senior management within both institutions. Students within the occupation described how they had all repeatedly reached out and tried every available avenue within the department to raise their concerns about the "numerous systematic problems" that devalue the students and their course.

Cathryn Fenton, a final year BA Theatre and Performance student describes how the constant neglect and erasure of her course has led to her and other course members to taking on "much more emotional labour" as they are "constantly fighting for small victories" on issues that should never have existed in the first place, let alone need active fighting to solve. Her full statement reads as follows:

“My role as course rep had me go to all of the relevant JSSLC’s, Board of Studies and Student Voice Forums. We also hold weekly year group meetings, the minutes of which are sent to GSA management. Previous to the announcement of closure we raised our concerns about the erasure of Theatre and Performance at GSA through these forums; these concerns were rarely followed up by management. If they were they were just acknowledgements, rather than solutions. In April I took it upon myself to write Sean McNamara, the Head Of GSA, a letter detailing our concerns with numerous systemic problems in GSA that have lead to the stripping of resources, recognition and respect for our department. This letter was signed by many members of the cohort. I have been promised a meeting to discuss this letter 3 times and am yet to receive one.

The erasure and lack of recognition for our course has caused me, and other course reps, to take on much more emotional labour. We work very hard to improve the student experience for our peers and in meetings we are constantly fighting for small victories. For example, in lieu of marketing support from GSA for the final year showings, we have gathered images to be put on the screens around the building, organised the name, logo and marketing campaign for the Theatre and Performance Fringe Festival and made a high quality trailer. When I asked GSA if I could use a performance space to film the trailer, they advised me that I would have to pay for a duty technician - in which case I asked the DMA department for support, which I then got for free.

The closure was announced on Wednesday 1st May in a meeting with every cohort in the department - however PhD students, Placement Students and students on temporary withdrawal were not told until management were prompted. After the closure was announced I called for a meeting with Sean again, but had no response. Students across all years have called for GSA to write an official statement confirming the terms of the closure in their year-group meetings, in meetings they have had with Sean and across social media platforms.

Streams of communication with GSA management have been difficult over the past few years, and even more so in the past few weeks. It is upsetting and exhausting that we have tried to work with management to improve the position for our department within GSA previous to the announcement of closure, only to be ignored every time. Perhaps if we had been heard, we would be in different circumstances. Management have failed to commit to students in detailing the ways in which they intend to support the delivery of the programme for remaining students. This is what has lead to the occupation.” Cathryn Fenton

After 48 hours in occupation, the student protesters left the building with a rally through campus stopping outside Senate House and finishing outside the Front Room at the Student Union building. The rally involved large banners, protest signs, a megaphone and enough chants and shouts to make it noticed. Upon arriving at Senate House, a rather concerned security guard immediately walked up to the entrance to lock the doors in case the protestors tried to enter! It was amusing to witness that it took 3 hours to get a meeting with the Head of GSA and the Chief Student Officer but only seconds to get locked out of Senate House. It is likely that Senate House feared another occupation in a throwback to last years 'Occupy Senate House' protest. It is unsurprising though that Senate House are concerned about student action. Only recently the student body voted in a referendum that 84% of respondents had no confidence in senior management at the university. This was alongside an all staff vote that resulted in 96% of respondents having no confidence. Their is evidently mass discontent with how senior management are behaving in relation to the course closures but also about the general running of the university.

Both outside Senate House and the SU building, the students gave speeches and encouraging messages to their fellow protestors talking about how good it was to have such a turnout and to thank them for their commitment and efforts in fighting to save their course. The rally gave the occupation a grand finale. Where most of the activism had been mostly out of sight for the majority of the campus, hidden away in a small office building. The rally gave a visible output for the student's voices to be heard. To be able to witness that students care. They care that their course is being cut. They care that their staff are being mistreated. They care that the way management are behaving is wrong. They care enough to stand up and protest!

This occupation should be a warning to those in Senate House. Students will not tolerate the direction the university is heading in and unless they want to see greater, more escalated, activism, they need to actively listen to what students are telling them. Stop the cuts, stop the closures, invest in student and staff wellbeing.