Neoliberalism and Solidarity in Universities: The Case of Sanaz Raji

by Richard Seymour

Marketisation of higher education affects all students, but, as the case of Sanaz Raji illustrates, some are particularly vulnerable.

First published: 09 April, 2014 | Category: Activism, Education, Privatisation

Britain’s university system is being reorganised in a neoliberal direction. This is precisely the opposite of headline news: it is a slow-burning process that has been going on for over thirty years.  But one aspect of the coalition’s austerity project is the radicalisation of this programme. By raising tuition fees and introducing competition and ‘marketisation’ across the system, they are accelerating the rate at which university administrations convert their campuses into ‘enterprises’.  

Why wouldn’t vice-chancellors be delighted with this? After years of being under-funded by the state, they are being given the option of raising tons of cash from students, and what’s more they can reward themselves as generously as many city bankers for their success in doing so. However, they face a problem. Students have to acquiesce in being treated like consumers rather than citizens with certain democratic rights. They have to be made to see the university as a well-run business selling them a great product, rather than a public institution. They have to accept the authority of university management in the affairs of the university as conclusive. This is why the University of London administrators invited a brutal police crackdown on students protesting in support of migrant cleaning workers, and implemented a ban on protests within university grounds. 

Of course, many students did not put up with that, and the ensuing Cops Off Campus protests were significant, if not exactly huge. The protest ban was broken, at least for a day. Yet there are instances where students are much more susceptible to university pressure, and much more exposed to state coercion, and where solidarity is harder to achieve. International students, particularly those of black or ethnic minority backgrounds, are potentially exposed to added pressure not just from university administrations, but also from the UK Border Authority. 

The case of Sanaz Raji and her battle with the University of Leeds illustrates this, and the problem of solidarity that it raises, very well. 

Sanaz Raji is a scholar and a published author, who specialises in work on the Iranian diaspora. Until relatively recently, she was an international PhD student at the University of Leeds with a scholarship. And yet, from such auspicious beginnings, she is today waging a ferocious and grinding struggle on several fronts to avoid being kicked out of her home, kicked out of the country, and prevented from ever completing her research.  

What can she have done that was so wrong? The short answer, which British readers will understand immediately, appears to be that she made a fuss. 

Raji was awarded her scholarship at the university’s Institute of Communication Studies. The initial issue between herself and the University was, one would think, something that could easily be resolved. Her intended PhD supervisor left the university before she began, and she needed a supervisor with some detailed knowledge of her field, which the supervisor they assigned her did not have.  

After a few months, in February 2010, she requested a meeting with the postgraduate research tutor in which she explained her concerns. ‘I didn’t complain’, Raji explains, ‘but I said I needed to find someone who could carry on the role.  Instead I was told that I should be grateful for having the scholarship’. 

Perhaps this in itself would not have escalated into a significant problem. Raji was not allowed to take a new supervisor, but she could take on some co-supervisors who knew her field better. However, shortly after the meeting, she experienced a significant change in the attitude of her supervisor, whom she recalls becoming rather cold and unhelpful.  

‘I became very concerned that a confidential conversation had been circulated around the department, and that people were talking. And I found the ensuing atmosphere very intimidating’. At any rate, she successfully upgraded to PhD status in November 2010, having passed her viva. 

That November, she suffered a serious accident, badly breaking her right ankle and preventing her from doing her PhD work. At this point, the duty of pastoral care for students would normally have taken over, and Raji would have been given support and time off to recover. In fact, she recalls, she was given no such support, despite being in great pain and often immobile for all practical purposes.  

‘I was told that if I didn’t get the work done, I was in jeopardy of losing my scholarship. I was given no support or extension, I wasn’t given anything. I am on my own in this country, and there was no explanation of what avenues were open to me.’ She again attempted to raise the matter with the postgraduate research supervisor. ‘I said I felt like I was being bullied, I was not happy with my supervision, and I was not getting any pastoral care. But he began to flip the argument, saying that maybe the reason I was not progressing was not due to the injury but due to work I was doing for the London School of Economics alongside my PhD, which they knew about. In fact, I had been making progress, and nowhere in my supervisory notes were there any concerns about my progress’. 

At any rate, a new meeting between herself and her PhD supervisors was called for January. She attended, still on crutches, and found the atmosphere very hostile. It was implied, she says, that she suffered from a mental illness preventing her from doing her university work.  

Nonetheless, and despite still being in pain, Raji was soon able to return to her work and had a number of months of productive work. However, after returning from a conference in Istanbul where she delivered a paper, she was summoned to a new meeting and told that her supervisors did not believe that she was progressing enough, or that she would complete her PhD within three years. A week later, her scholarship was terminated.  

Later, in April 2013, the university altered its explanation for the revocation of the scholarship. ‘They backtracked and said that the reason they took the scholarship away was because I had taken a job with the LSE that, due to the number of hours it involved, was in violation of my contract with the university. They have taken away my scholarship on a technicality’. In fact, the job with the LSE was originally based at Leeds, and was tied to her original intended supervisor. She was interviewed for the position at Leeds, and worked on it there for a period of time. However, the same institution that recruited her for the job would later go on to claim that they had no knowledge of her having taken the position. 

Raji feels that she has been made an example of largely because she complained about problems she had rather than simply counting herself lucky. All of this left her struggling on three fronts. First, she had to fight with the university authorities over her right to continue to conduct and complete her research. She has appealed against the university’s decision, pointing out that she was given inadequate guidance and that the supervision did not meet the university’s own procedures. The Office of Independent Adjudicators for Higher Education (OIA) looking into her case has now found against her, stating that it considers the lack of supervision an academic matter beyond its remit.  

Second, she had to fight for the right to remain in the country after the expiry of her visa in the New Year. Third, she has been threatened with eviction twice by the University authorities, and is struggling to maintain her home. Further, in addition to the recurrent pain she still suffers in her ankle, she is now diagnosed with functional limb weakness which again leaves her in continual pain, often immobilises her and sees her having to go in and out of hospital. Raji is presently struggling to remain in the country. As a migrant, she can no longer claim legal aid, and is thus dependent on the contradictory and hard to follow legal advice that people offer pro bono. 

Perhaps most disappointing in this case is the lack of support for Raji from her student union. The Justice 4 Sanaz campaign has gained the support of leading academics, and various student unions such as King’s College London Union, University of Bradford Union, and Royal Holloway Student Union. Her own university’s student union, however, has declined to back her.  And the NUS has fobbed her off on the grounds that it is the job of her own student union to support her, not theirs. Most recently, she attempted to attend the NUS Women’s Campaign to gather support.  She was locked out of the meeting and prevented from speaking to anyone inside, or even from waiting outside the door to catch up with people she knew and who would support her case. When she sat down in protest, they called the police. ‘Cops off campus’, unless you’re an international student. 

Of course, academic ranks-closing, bureaucratic bullying, and the timidity of official student structures, are hardly novel aspects of the neoliberal era. But as the higher education system expands in a neoliberal way, the stratification of students by class, race, gender and nationality is bound to produce routine injustices. And the only counter to this will be, not just infrastructures of student action and solidarity, but also the political perspectives needed to put those infrastructures to work when they are needed. 

Sign the Justice 4 Sanaz petition

Leeds University Union was contacted for its view on this story, but did not respond.

Richard Seymour is the author, most recently, of Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made (Pluto, 2014).

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