Save Keele: A Smear Campaign? Or the Action that Keele Needs?
By Ryan Hutton
The Setting: Keele University, 2019. The University, like many others, is struggling financially. The rate of young people wanting to attend university is dropping. Keele University’s solution? A three-year severance scheme that will render 150 members of staff ‘voluntarily’ redundant.
On what criteria are they selecting these 150 members of staff? It is has not been announced.
How will the University combat the loss of education that will come with these staff redundancies? It has not been announced.
If the rate of students continues to plummet, along with the University’s funding, after the three-year plan has been enacted, what will be the next course of action? It has not been announced.
In three year’s time, how many more staff will ‘voluntarily’ be made redundant?
There is currently a lot of unclarity in the air among students regarding the University’s recently announced voluntary severance scheme. It is only after attending the most recent Union Council Meeting and sitting down to talk to Ahmed El-Kady, one of the founding members of the Save Keele movement, that I am starting to understand the University’s attempts to scramble together a solution for their current financial issues. It appears that the University’s senior management’s transparency with students on the inner-workings of the University has hit an all-time-low.
It should be noted before I continue that the Sabbatical Officers of Keele SU and the KPA have been working tirelessly to address the University’s financial issues and to stand against the voluntary severance scheme. This work has, however, been predominantly conducted within meetings with the University’s senior management and various trade unions associated with the University. In these meetings there is little room for students. Information gained from these meetings has been relayed by the SU at various talks with students, and shall continue to be relayed. The SU shall also continue their work with aiding students and staff in relation to the severance scheme on a personal level.
In addition to the SU’s work, Save Keele, a small group of students formed of both undergraduates and post-graduates, that have started to act against the severance scheme. Ahmed El-Kady has stated that “it’s [Save Keele] main objective has become to stand in solidarity with the staff, to oppose the voluntary severance scheme, to call for transparency from the university, to push the idea that if cuts need to happen due to a financial crisis at the University it should come, in part, from the salaries of the senior management, which have been rising.”
Mr El-Kady also continued to say that “I don’t think that it’s controversial of me to say that we have been the most active body at Keele right now in terms of opposing the cuts.”
The intentions of Save Keele are, wholly, the purest. It is evident that it is comprised of a group of hard-working and caring students. One member of the Union Council even complimented Save Keele, touching on how many of the activities opposing last year’s Lecturer Pension Cuts were run by the SU, and that it is great to see students organising activities and taking a stand.
Opposition for Save Keele was expressed at the meeting, however, when it was brought to the attention of the council that Save Keele had been publishing incorrect information about the University’s current financial situation.
My conversation with Mr El-Kady came a day after the Union Council Meeting. At the meeting a member of the council put forward a temporary motion that would ensure that Keele SU would respond to the University’s three-year plan, which would later be revised at the next Union General Meeting (21/03/2019). In that meeting Mr El-Kady proposed the following amendment to the actions of the motion: ‘Keele SU will provide material support to the Save Keele media group formed at the Emergency Unions Meeting and promote their activities through social media and email in a timely manner.’
It was at this point that the figures shown on the following poster were noted to be incorrect:
It was further stated that an elected member of the KPA addressed this publication of incorrect information directly with a founding member of Save Keele, though no action regarding it was taken by Save Keele and the future information that they have released on their material.
Mr El-Kady later in the meeting apologised for the mistakes made. When I addressed them in our discussion, he explained that “that [the statistic shown on the above poster] is a specific statistic that we took from the emergency unions meeting from the presentation slides that were delivered the presence of the student union and the KPA.”
It was stated in the Union Council Meeting by a member of the council that “the University is a very complex system, so it is very easy to take specific numbers out of context.”
In retaliation to the arguments made against Save Keele in the Union Council Meeting, Mr El-Kady further said “it is a little disappointing that what is essentially a group of the most passionate, most galvanised, group of students opposing the cuts that have achieved the most within the public sphere has morphed into, due to what is essentially a factual blip, a smear campaign or sorts.”
After a lengthy discussion at the Union Council Meeting regarding whether Save Keele should be allowed to operate, it was decided that a re-worded amendment shall be put forward by Mr El-Kady: ‘Keele SU will provide material support to the Save Keele media group formed at the Emergency Cross Union meeting and promote their activities through social media and email in a timely manner, provided all information is accurate.’ The final vote was 9-2, allowing Save Keele to be backed by Keele SU.
When I asked Mr El-Kady if he understood the importance in working alongside Keele SU, he responded: “Absolutely […] It can’t be Save Keele. It can’t be a room of the 18 of us going in and speaking to them [University Senior Management], so we absolutely don’t have any issue with working with the SU.”
The discussion between myself and Mr El-Kady soon moved onto how Save Keele appeared to be made up of a select few students, and that it was not transparent as to who all those students are. “Often in times of crisis, I think, and I would say that what happening now is a crisis, that you just reach out to the people you know are interested, you just grab them and put them in the group, let’s get going, let’s work. But I do think we need to start reaching out to others and advertise to them on how to get involved” he stated, calmly.
I soon asked if he would be willing to become a contact point for Save Keele. Mr El-Kady responded that “what’s important for us is that we can have a contact point as Save Keele, but we want to avoid establishing a hierarchy like a society. The way it is currently, as a group of students are taking creative and spontaneous initiative and collaborating without the hierarchy to dictate who does what, is a very positive thing.”
But what happens if Save Keele grows? How will a lack of hierarchy affect the control that it has over its members and its actions? Currently, Save Keele operates as a very peaceful movement, conducting activities such as letter writing to the Senior Management Team, anonymously writing notes about why they appreciate the actions of their lecturers, and circulating a petition for the Sabbatical Officers to show the Senior Management of the University. Yet it only takes one student to join Save Keele and commit a radical act under the movements’ name. Under a system where the movement allows its members to freely carry out activities of peaceful protest, can radical actions be prevented?
Only time will tell. Save Keele is still a young movement, but in working with the SU there is no doubt that it will find a little more structure.
Upon asking Mr El-Kady what his final thoughts on the entire matter was the following, he stated:
“What I would like to say is that the voluntary scheme is seeking to displace 150 staff members in the next three years and the University has launched this programme and are moving forward with it at a rapid pace and there is a huge amount of anxiety from the staff that they are going to be pressured into leaving their jobs. This voluntary severance scheme, while it may be voluntary, is going to be targeted specifically at departments which are not performing financially. […] The remaining staff are going to be so unbearably overworked that they are going to be pushed to the limit in terms of their mental health and well-being. We believe that if there is a financial crisis at Keele, which we are happy to accept, the remedy should not come at the expense of the education of the students. We are surprised that this cut has been announced after a consistent growth in the salary of the Vice-Chancellor. We are curious as to see if the senior members of staff will be willing to stand together on this and take cuts to their salaries. That is what it is about- solidarity and saving education at Keele.”
If you would like to get involved with Save Keele, the Facebook page can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/SaveKeeleNow/