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UNIVERSITY of Exeter students staged a campus rally today to condemn management actions that cut short an occupation in support of striking lecturers, saying that their right to protest had been denied.
The university served a notice calling on students to end their occupation of the Newman Green lecture theatre, an action intended to show solidarity with University and College Union (UCU) members involved in a dispute over pay, working conditions and pensions.
The occupation was part of a national movement by students to escalate the ongoing UCU strikes.
Exe Students Support the Strikes left the building after saying that they had been threatened with legal and disciplinary action.
Dozens then held a rally outside, joined by other students staging an occupation in tents across the campus, including some who had blocked access to management parking spaces to pressure bosses to discuss staff working conditions.
Students marched across the campus with their banners and joined the UCU picket line.
The university had previously agreed to respect the students’ right to protest and freedom of speech on campus, according to the group.
Demonstrators also said that they had been guaranteed that no disciplinary action would be taken unless they engaged in criminal behaviour, adding that their behaviour was the same as during a previous occupation at the university.
“However, our treatment has changed dramatically, from not being allowed water, toilet access and food for hours to being watched even while we sleep,” the students said in a statement.
The group warned that the decision “sets a dangerous precedent” for other protests and that, being able to “silence protest at will,” management “may choose to mute actions that challenge the university or may be seen as harmful to their image.”
“We know the university management have tried to cover up racist incidents and have withheld information regarding these incidents from the guild, and it stands to reason that the university may shut down the student voice to do the same,” the statement added. “This cannot stand.”
Student activist Michael, who declined to give his surname, said the university’s reversal of its previous stance showed management’s “true feelings on activism” — that they would only tolerate instances that “didn’t really affect them.”
He told the Star that previous student occupations had shown how protests can cause financial and reputational damage.
“We believe that the university probably cares more about itsimage than free speech,” he said.
Michael argued that, with a university open day planned for Wednesday, the institution “didn’t want to look bad” to prospective students and their families.
He said: “Lecturers are our friends and we support them. We would [take action to] support any worker or person trying to reach their goals.
“Their working conditions are basically our learning conditions. If we don’t support our lecturers, our education will also suffer.
“As students, we are in a better situation, so we can act as a strike force in support of them to apply direct financial and reputational damage through our positions.”
The University of Exeter said it respected the right to protest but claimed that the group were “acting of their own accord, with no mandate for causing disruption to the teaching of hundreds of students.”
A spokeswoman said: “Accordingly, they have been given notice to vacate.
“The students are being visited by officers from our students’ guild to check on their safety and welfare and of course they are free to leave at any time.”
A group of University College London (UCL) students also began direct action in support of striking lecturers on Monday, occupying the main building and blocking the entrance to the provost’s office.
Liberate the University said students were tired of seeing lecturers’ workloads grow while their pay falls.
The activist group said it wanted to provide a way for students to get involved in strikes aside from just joining picket lines.
UCL students will host cultural events such as talks, film screenings and workshops throughout the week to bring people together and “make change happen.”
A UCL spokesperson said the university respects the right of students to protest peacefully, supports further talks on resolving the national dispute over academics’ pay and pensions and will “engage fully” in any negotiations.
“We will continue to listen and respond to concerns raised by our community about this and other issues,” the spokesperson said.
In Scotland, Scottish Labour deputy leadership candidate Matt Kerr wrote to Education Secretary John Swinney urging him to intervene and “sort out the disproportionate” suspension of 13 students at Stirling University who have expressed solidarity with their lecturers.
A Scottish government spokesperson said: “Ministers have no powers to intervene in the university’s disciplinary process. We shall respond to the letter in due course once it has been received.”
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