It has been hard to avoid news of the university occupations this week.
Hoards of aging commentators, seeing current student antics as a means to relive their imagined youth of ’68, have used their columns to wallow in the rosy mists of nostalgic reverie, remarking with surprise that Thatcher’s children have turned out politicised after all. Look, today they were all marching, isn’t it sweet.
Scrape off the dollops of patronising gloss, and the real legacy of the occupations is only beginning to become apparent. They may have lost the vote in Parliament, but there has been a fundamental shift in the outlook of the new student-consumer towards directing their own education.
Last week, I reported from UCL’s occupied Jeremy Bentham room, which – now into its third week – has become seen as the nerve centre of the national campaign, attracting such supporters as Billy Bragg, Mark Thomas and, last night, Razorlight, to come and entertain them.
Such activities have made headlines, but what is really compelling is how the students have actually been curating their own serious programmes of lectures, seminars and classes. In between plotting the media-friendly public actions, they have constructed an alternative model of education.
“I’m learning more from the students than they are from me,” says Jane Rendell, director of architectural research at the Bartlett, who relocated her PhD seminar to the occupation last week. “This isn’t just about political protest; it has become a space for exploring radical pedagogy.”
Such experimental parallel institutions have sprung up within the lecture theatres, offices and events rooms of universities across the country, redefining these dormant spaces as grounds for productive, student-led learning. From Leeds to Sheffield, Bristol to Falmouth, these initiatives have provided an alternative mirror image – they are the real Free Schools of the Big Society.
And they’re not just staying in their nests of slogan-daubed bed sheets and posting songs on YouTube. Like all good community-minded establishments, they have “outreach departments” that plot external actions – coordinated with other occupations through Facebook and Twitter – satellite events that take this new model of teaching out on to the street.
Yesterday evening saw a flash mob “teach-in” at Euston station, while earlier in the week Arts Against Cuts organised a similar event at Tate Britain, temporarily transforming its hallowed galleries into an impromptu lecture theatre – and strategically delaying the Turner Prize presentation in the process. Tonight, they are doing the same at theNational Gallery.
A group of Goldsmiths graduate students has established theUniversity for Strategic Optimism, a nomadic institution that pitches up in unexpected places, briefly converting them into spaces of learning. Their inaugural lecture took place in the London Bridge branch of Lloyds TSB, and they have since lectured at Tesco. This is the stuff the Archigram generation could only draw doped-up pictures of; now it is happening for real.
“We seek to not only draw out the political layers inherent within space,” says their fictional lecturer Dr Étienne Lantier, “but to re-politicise thinking about space, aesthetics and the city by means of performative political action.”
Across town, students at the RCA have gone one step further. Despite being late-comers to the occupation scene (their sit-in only lasted one night after the Rector foiled the campaign by agreeing with their demands), they have already established an alternative educational model in the form of Department 21.
“The RCA should be wall-less,” says Bethany Wells, a second year MA architecture student, sitting at a hastily erected table in the college’s main gallery. “We’re providing a space for people from different departments to meet and develop their own practice.” The initiative has already been running for a year, squatting whichever spaces in the campus happen to be free, and running a packed programme of interdisciplinary workshops, lectures and discussions.
This is an important challenge to the received dogma of the standard model of art and architectural education. “The unit system has proved itself to be redundant,” says Tomasz Crompton, also at the RCA. “It doesn’t work in the interests of the students.”
But, rather than drawing up elaborate aestheticised visions, or hiding behind rhetorical allusions to misread theorists, these students are getting on with building their alternative. And it’s looking pretty convincing.
Originally published on BDonline, 10th December 2010