Hunger strike on campus: How one postgrad is taking on LSE

Note: This article was originally published online on 19 January. It has been updated to account for developments that have happened since then.

On a cold January day, Davit Svanidze is standing in front of the globe with a sign, much like any other protestor on campus. A few minutes’ walk away, massive “Kill the Bill” protests are taking place at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Davit, an MSc Economics student, is here for an entirely different reason: a hunger strike.

Why would someone undertake such drastic action? Davit’s grievances centre around LSE’s deferral policy for postgraduate students. The policy states that exams for postgraduate students who defer will be held in January 2023, a whole year after the normal date and much later than the graduation period in the summer. Deferred undergraduate exams, in contrast, will take place in late Summer 2022. 

According to Davit, this policy causes significant problems for students because it prevents them from graduating in the summer. Not being able to apply for the Graduate Route Visa, which allows overseas students to stay in the UK after graduation, is one disadvantage. In a document outlining his concerns, he states that exams next January may significantly limit many people’s ability to stay in the UK because the visas of many students would expire before the end of the year, and graduates must stay in the UK to apply through the Graduate Route. 

Davit says many people will be forced to reject offers they’ve already secured as they won’t be graduating in the summer. For those who took a year-long leave to pursue their studies, exams in January present a significant challenge. In addition, Davit says this policy also poses serious issues related to scholarships and potentially being “hired at the same level as someone without a master’s degree”, which could result in a decline in salary for graduates.

“We were lobbying and writing emails to the LSE administration but it didn’t change much,” Davit tells me. Prof Dilly Fung, the Pro-Director for Education, told him in an email seen by The Beaver that it is not possible to change the policy. “Disappointed” is a word he uses repeatedly as he explains the response he got from LSE. However, he’s not alone in petitioning LSE to change the policy. Davit says that departments and the SU have been pushing for change since December to no avail.

Prof Fung gave a few reasons for why this policy was implemented. She claimed the School had to consider equity, essentially arguing that students who have deferred exams on top of their normal assessments in the summer may not be able to demonstrate their learning in the best way. She also said that the Academic Board, LSE’s highest academic body, had decided that those taking resits and deferred exams were required to sit their assessments at the same time in order to maintain parity between the two.

Additionally, Prof Fung made the point that having the deferral assessment period in the summer would not be possible due to the high levels of staffing associated with processing exam results. Paradoxically, however, LSE says that students who defer “an assessment taken during the postgraduate RDAP in January [2023]…will sit this in the Summer Term assessment period later that year”. If having deferred exams in the summer puts too much pressure on the system, how can LSE implement it next year?

It isn’t hard to see why some would give up after hitting this brick wall. Davit, however, is attempting to bulldoze through it. Undertaking a hunger strike is no small feat: “After isolation, it’s not the best thing to do,” Davit tells me. When I ask him why he is taking such drastic action, he says: “It’s better for me to do this to show how much I suffer, [along with] many other students, than to sit at home and just struggle.”

Unlike those campaigning for massive change, he has only one simple demand: for LSE to arrange exams for students who have deferred so they can graduate in the summer. “My point is to show how much pressure this policy causes, and I hope they will see it’s not something trivial,” he says. The consequences are numerous and potentially devastating for many people, so much so that Davit claims that “some students are considering dropping out because of this policy”.

Almost two weeks after our first meeting, I meet Davit in the Centre Building over coffee. He seems to have recovered partially from his hunger strike, which he had ended a week ago. Managing to go 7 days without eating is not easy, and it’s clear Davit felt the effects of his hunger strike. “Muscle pain, everywhere, especially my legs… You feel you are really tired and very weak. Every two days it became worse,” he says, as he explains why he had to stop his hunger strike. “If I [had] continued it, it [would] be a very serious problem.” 

As he slowly gets back into the intensive schedule of his course, his reflections on the response he got from LSE is one of disappointment. There is no denial that Davit caught people’s attention, including the LSE leadership: “They got the point that it was something urgent and important,” he says. However, he also got the sense that the action that students urgently need is a long way off: “There was never a point [where they said] ‘we know it’s difficult to change but we will definitely find a quick solution’. It was always ‘let’s wait until next year’.”

At this point, Davit’s demands are looking increasingly less likely to be accepted by LSE, as he attests to: “If someone says we want to do something, then we are just looking for solutions… We don’t get the feeling that they want to do it this year.” Yet, Davit is still not giving up; he’s still working with the SU to lobby LSE to provide solutions. Davit’s determination to fight for his demands seems hard to deter.

Davit’s petition can be found here.

LSE has released the following statement from Prof Fung on January 21:

“We are extremely pleased and relieved that Davit has ended his hunger strike. We encourage him to pursue his protest by working with the Students’ Union to put forward his concerns through established channels.”

“As we have explained to Davit throughout our ongoing discussions with him this week, changing our current postgraduate resit/deferral policy would require consultation across the LSE community and development of processes that do not currently exist.”

“It is not possible at this point to set another postgraduate assessment sitting for current students in Summer Term given the scale of such an undertaking. Robust assessment that delivers a fair reflection of students’ achievements requires extensive input from LSE academics, external examiners and School staff.” 

“In addition, such a policy change would require consensus through LSE’s academic governance arrangements.” 

Clarification (January 21): This article previously stated that students who defer their exams in January 2023 will defer to the Summer Term later that year. As a point of clarification, only students who are deferring for the second time in January 2023 will take their exam in Summer. Students who defer for the first time in January 2023 will take their exam in January 2024.

Photographed by Bora Bayram

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