Over 30 Queen Mary students recently spent 33 nights occupying the Octagon in the Queen’s Building in protest of cuts made to student bursaries.
After multiple meetings with management, three of which involved the Principal of Queen Mary Colin Bailey, the Occupation came to an end.
Occupiers say that as a direct result of their occupation, £260,000 has been put back in the pot for bursaries for both 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 for those in the £15,000-£30,000 bracket. Bursaries given to those in the £0-£15,000 will remain as normal, although there was never a question of that changing.
As well as reinstating money to the bursaries fund, Occupiers also say that they have made the university commit to creating more data sets which assesses the impact of bursaries for low-income students.
Ella Harvey, occupier and the next VP Welfare for QMSU come the next academic year, says the university admitted that the data from the Undergraduate Finance Survey which underpinned the decision to cut bursaries, was “too opinionated” to be used to justify bursaries. As a result, they are going to do another survey. “The new survey will be more data-driven, and I will be monitoring this next year to ensure it includes quantifiable evidence for how mental health is impacted rather than the original justification they used. They justified cuts to bursaries because students who were low-income did not drop out – even though the data to back this up only included students who received the bursary so of course they didn’t drop out.”
Colin Bailey, Principal of Queen Mary, said that the decision to reduce bursaries came from government pressure. “The current guidance from the regulator, based on sector-wide research, recommends that universities place more funding into retention, student success and widening participation … rather than bursaries because they feel that the research shows that you get more impact putting money into the other three areas.”
On April 26th, Colin Bailey issued an updated proposal to the bursary system. He proposed “any new home undergraduate student starting in 2018 or 2019 from a household with an income of less than £20,000 per annum will receive £1,700 per annum, and any student from a family with an income of between £20,000 and £35,000 will receive £1,000 per annum”. He also reassured existing students that their bursaries will not be changed.
Currently, students receive £1,571 per year if their household income is £25,000 or less, and £1,256 per year if their household income is between £25,000 and £42,600.
Occupiers took control of the Octagon, the university’s most prized room in Queens’ Building, on the 12th March and the Occupation lasted until 10th April. Original demands from the occupiers included: reverse bursary cuts; Colin Bailey to release statement of solidarity; Bailey to join striking staff at the picket; release gender pay gap and diversity data, and make university finance more transparent.
On 28th March, Queen Mary did release their gender pay gap and diversity data. However, any organisation with over 250 employees was legally required to report their gender pay gap by 5th April 2018 or else risk facing a hefty penalty.
In a recent interview with The Print, Colin Bailey said he did not join the picket line and publicly support the striking lecturers because he was talking to UUK, USS, and the government, and if he made a public statement, “all those doors would have closed”. Bailey says, “it would have been the easy thing to do” but Queen Mary would have then been “put in a box”.
In a statement read at the end of the Occupation, occupiers said: “We have proven, once again, that students have the power to take control of the university and bring about real changes”.
“More than four hundred members of staff at Queen Mary and more than sixty Members of Parliament have signed open letters to Principal Colin Bailey in support of our occupation, and hundreds of students and supporters have signed our petitions.”
“The last month has been an unprecedented period of solidarity between staff and students. From the picket lines to the Octagon, we have stood together and pushed each other forwards in our shared fight against the commodification of education. But we have also spoken together, organised together, cooked and dined together, danced and sung together, and, by disrupting the university’s ordinary operation, we have learned together.”
However, Colin Bailey wishes that the students came to see him before occupying. He said: “If they would have come to see me, I could have done a lot more. They could have highlighted the issue – because I didn’t know as I’ve only been here seven months. If they would have given me a week, I would have looked at it, come to a conclusion quickly, addressed it, and told them basically what I’m going to do and then, if they weren’t happy, then go for an occupation.” Colin went on to say: “I wish I could do more with bursaries right across the board. I’ve got friends who have got three or four kids going to university and they’re really struggling. It’s hard work and it’s hard work for students as well.”