Isobel Urquhart, ‘Then and Now: Report on the Old Schools Occupation of 2010’

How the University of Cambridge responded to the Occupation of the University Combination Room in November/December 2010


How should a University facing massive cuts to its budget due to the withdrawal of central funding and its replacement by a rise in tuition fees to be paid via loans to students respond to a student occupation protesting against the same?

How might the University of Cambridge in particular have used its reputation and its formidable powers of intellect and communication to have marshalled a powerful opposition and given a lead to other universities?

How might the University have made common cause with the students to give a strong answer to the question of how to provide free higher education and maintain the idea of the university as a public good available to all?

It is instructive to think about how the University might have responded to the students’ occupation in November-December 2010, because the contrast with how it actually responded tells us so much about the real priorities and values of the senior management of this university.

The following report records how the University reacted last year when a group of student activists occupied the University Combination Room in Senate House. The occupation began on Friday 26 November 2010 as part of a wave of national protests against the Coalition government’s proposed changes to higher education, which would allow universities to set higher tuition fees, while at the same time cutting government funding. It details the ways in which the University failed to engage with the students’ demands; the University’s response was, at its best, dismissive and, at its worst, obstructive, even intimidatory.

1          The response to the demands made by the Occupation

The occupation began on Wednesday 24 November following a protest march in which one thousand Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University students, sixth-formers, academics, and residents took to the streets of Cambridge. The march culminated, on that first day of the occupation, in the issuing of the following statement:

We demand that the University completely oppose the increase in fees, fight against it, and fight against all cuts to education, welfare and all vital services‘.

University senior personnel failed at that time to speak out against the higher education proposals, and have continued to fail in this regard. Indeed, at the time, the University had already announced that it “welcomed” the possibility of charging up to £9,000.

Further invitations were made (e.g. 1 Dec 2010), asking the Vice-Chancellor to engage in ‘an open dialogue with students and staff on the current predicament of UK higher education’ (CDE website) and setting out a list of demands. Despite these requests from the students for dialogue, none was forthcoming.

“Their  response to our demands was – if you could think of it as a response –  was legal action – there was never any acknowledgement of the reception of the demands –  never any response –  no one official ever spoke to us.” (Student)

“Before they received our demands they had already started taking legal action against us.” (Student)

Subsequently, a document, intending to be an injunction, was served upon the students; they refused to read it, instead tearing it down off the walls without reading it.

Students noted that the University, having employed this tactic as a last resort during the January 2009 occupation of the Law Faculty in protest against the University’s position on the crisis in Gaza, was now choosing to adopt this tactic as a first response, indicating that it had never had any interest in any kind of dialogue with the students.

 2          The interactions between the students and University and other services during the Occupation.

The University massively over-reacted in terms of the provision of security guards:

“They had security guards there on 24 hour rotation and I think … towards the end of the occupation, they had security guards in the neighbouring rooms.” (Student)

Quite unnecessarily heavy-handed, the over-policing of the occupation strongly implied to the public and employees working in Senate House and neighbouring buildings that the students were out of control, were dangerous, and could be expected to occupy more of the building unless prevented. In fact the students went to considerable trouble to reassure staff working in the building that they would not interrupt or interfere with their work and that employees were completely free to go about their everyday business as usual, without intimidation or hindrance.

Later on, there was a visit from an individual from the Registrary accompanied by police officers.  It seemed extraordinary that the University, rather than speak for itself about its intentions towards the occupation, persuaded the police, in the person of the Chief Inspector, to intimidate the students on its behalf by warning the students not only that they were doing something unlawful, they

“should be more concerned about your academic careers because you are risking your academic careers by being here. (Student)

Why a member of the police force felt it legitimate for him to make such an intimidating threat about students’ future academic careers is mystifying. Why the university felt unable to issue its own threats, even more so.

What he was doing was threatening us on behalf of the university – he was saying we may not be taking criminal action against you, we may not take police action against you, but you’re endangering your future academic careers by being here and the University will take action against you.” (Student)

Throughout the Occupation, there were numerous deliberate attempts to disrupt its activity and make it difficult for the collective to work effectively together and plan actions. For example, personnel from the Fire Service initially claimed they had come to inspect the room because “we saw the occupation on TV and we were personally worried about you so we came in”: they then used that excuse to return every day on the spurious grounds that they needed to inspect the safety of the room. They regularly managed to find failures of compliance with fire regulations which, if they had been real, would have given University officials the excuse to enter and break up the occupation. Accusations of non-compliance included claiming that doors must not be padlocked, although leaving the doors unpadlocked at night was itself very unsafe for the inhabitants who would not be able to prevent anyone entering an area where people were sleeping. In addition, unpadlocked doors would have allowed bailiffs or security guards the opportunity to force entry.

At one point, there was an attempt at forcible entry which did indeed put the students’ safety at risk  – but not because of any wrongdoing on the part of the students.  As  they attempted to hold the doors closed against forcible entry, students’ hands were dangerously close to the large bolt-cutters being wielded and pushed through a gap in the doors by security guards and others on the other side of the doors who could not see what they were doing.

In a practice that continues to today, the University’s preferred strategy has been to single out individuals they elect to perceive as leaders. At the Senate House occupation, legal documents were addressed to individuals by name, later singling out these individuals for punishment. Not only did this bullying tactic represent an unjustifiable attack on the individuals concerned, but by addressing individuals as ‘leaders’ during the Occupation  University officials revealed their incomprehension of the collectivist nature of the students’ actions.

In particular, they notably revealed their own antediluvian attitudes to women activists by excluding them entirely as significant contributors to the Occupation.

I literally think they can’t imagine an initiative coming from a woman.”(Student)

3          The letter written by the Vice-Chancellor after the Occupation ended and meeting with delegates from the Occupation

In a letter written after the students voluntarily ended their Occupation, the Vice-Chancellor made no concessions to the students’ demands, nor did he recognize any requirement for him to enter into a dialogue on the substantive issues raised by the Occupation and the demands the students had asked to be discussed.

His letter exaggerated the harm the Occupation had caused the University. It claimed that the Occupation had cost the University thousands of pounds, that the premises had been damaged, and that staff were frightened and intimidated by the students. It issued a stern warning that the apparent ‘leniency’ it was showing towards the unlawful occupation would not be repeated in the future.

This determination to go after individual students each time there is a peaceful but inconvenient protest has proved to be durable.

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