Student protestors claim University House occupation “victory”

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On Wednesday Week 9, Lancaster students protesting for free education succeeded in occupying C Floor of the University House as part of an autonomously organised peaceful protest entitled ‘NO FEES, NO DEBT: Protest against fees and rent hikes’.

The demonstration was part of a day of national student action for free education and comes as a result of the University’s proposal to increase tuition fees for postgraduate and international students by 5 percent, and increase rent on campus by 2.5 percent. This saw protests across Britain at other universities, such as Sheffield and Warwick, where protests were met with police force, with accusations made that police attacked students at a sit-in with tasers and pepper spray.

Around midday, following a call of “occupy” from a protest member, a group of between 30 and 40 protesters entered the building taking over C floor of University House, the admissions floor of the building. It is believed that workers were peacefully allowed to evacuate the floor before the students took occupancy; the group remained there overnight. Extra security was required at the site, stopping others from the joining the occupiers, or providing them with food and drink.

Despite some leaving the occupation, at approximately 12.30pm today (Thursday Week 9) the seventeen remaining students left the building following promises from the University to create a dialogue with students in assessing the decision to increase fees and rents. Two police officers arrived at the University as well as external security although it is understood that no charges were to be brought against the occupiers by the University.

The protest began at 11.30am in Alexandra Square with students and some staff voicing their views via megaphones, chanting, singing and through banners and placards with messages such as ‘no borders, no nations, free education’ displayed on them. The group of protesters had even prepared their own versions of popular Christmas carols venting their frustrations towards University management. At around midday students then attempted to occupy the University House and successfully took over C floor hanging their banners from the windows.

Upon leaving their 24 hour occupation the protesters declared their efforts a “victory”, following negotiations between themselves and a representative of the University, believed to be Secretary Fiona Aiken. On social media the group stated: “negotiations have been a success – the university management have agreed to a long term dialogue with the student union and other student representatives including from our group, in order to reconsider rent and fee hikes.”

The protest was endorsed by LUSU, who have set up the campaign ‘STUDENTS AGAINST THE SHAFTING: NO TO FEE & RENT RISES’ to support the cause. In a statement on their website LUSU said “it is important that students make their displeasure known to the University” and as part of this they have also created an online petition for students to sign and leave comments on.

University staff were evacuated from their offices on Wednesday, and did not return the following day due to the students’ continued occupancy of the floor. Staff did however return to the building, excluding the Base and other parts of the University House ground floor. Thursday’s Disability Service drop-in sessions were both cancelled due to the disruption caused, as staff, such as counsellors, were unable to attend work. Although counselling was cancelled, LUSU offered their advice pods meaning that some sessions were able to continue.

The protestors listed seven demands they wanted the University to address as part of their action, including the transparency of finance, no present or future rise in tuition fees and rent, and the maintenance of student bursaries and scholarships. The University has subsequently promised to open a dialogue with the Union about the planned rise in rent fees and postgraduate and international tuition fees.

At the Alexandra Square demonstration, VP (Campaigns and Communications) Ronnie Rowlands told SCAN the increase in fees and rents is something which the University management need to realise has angered students. “ I think that the increase in fees is absurd, exploitative and elitist, it’s delightful to see so many people have turned out today. That on its own won’t see the success but you take that in conjunction with the general meeting, you take that in conjunction with students lobbying their heads of department and the Vice Chancellor and academics actually expressing some of the concerns and realising some of the implications of these increases could have on their departments is vital too.”

Jonny Unger, lecturer and UCU department rep, said he thought the increases were a terrible idea. He said “I think they’ve been pushed through without any consultation with staff and students, or any meaningful consultation anyway, and I would say that longer term they are going to be extremely damaging to the university and have the opposite effect of even what the university management intends because instead of increasing income from students they’re going to mean a decrease in income and students are going to go elsewhere.

“I personally am in support of the students, my union UCU has a long history of supporting free education and campaigning against fees increases and considering the conditions that students are studying in as well.”

This morning the occupiers were issued with a notice from the University stating that they were unlawfully disrupting the day-to-day operations of the University if they did not leave their occupancy by 9am. The protestors however stayed, agreeing to speak with a representative of the University in order to negotiate a deal whereby they would leave the premises.

Polly Davis, a member of the occupation and CCO (Environment and Ethics), commented that she was impressed by the engagement of students in opposition to the “ridiculous” increases. “We’re here because our university repeatedly charges for something that should be a right, repeatedly puts the fees up and education should be free, education should be for everyone. I think it’s ridiculous that people are having their fees increased just because they want to keep educating themselves,” Davis said. “Quite frankly I am disillusioned with our university but the one thing that I am impressed by is how engaged and how active so many students have been today because it shows that we do care.”

Lancaster University Anti-Capitalists member and key player in the organization of the protest Toby Atkinson vehemently believes student action is necessary to object to the “disgraceful” rises set to take place. “This University’s decision to raise fees for postgrad and international students and raise rent on campus is nothing short of a f***ing disgrace to be honest. It’s disgraceful!”

The protesters taking part were not willing to comment until they had made an official statement, expected to be made tomorrow, Friday Week 9.

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