The University Old Schools site, next to the Senate House was occupied today by Cambridge students protesting plans to raise tuition fees. The Old Schools house the offices the Vice Chancellor and other senior officials at the University.
Protesters successfully gained access to the building, installing themselves in the Senior Common Room (SCR) and ensured further access to the protest site by securing a doorway open using padlocks. A team of protesters then physically blocked access to these padlocks to prevent them being removed by University officials armed with bolt cutters.
An immediate consequence of the protesters actions was the closure of the nearby Gonville & Caius College library - causing some disgruntlement amongst Caius students. Members of the occupation claimed that this was an unnecessary step. Ellie, a History undergraduate, said: "We're really distressed and upset that Caius porters have decided to shut the library, and we believe this is a publicity slur. We have been told by members of the College authorities that they don't understand why the library has been closed."
Jenny Buckley, President of Gonville & Caius Students' Union, said she understood why the library had been closed by the college "I'm not going to criticise them. They (University authorities elsewhere) closed the Bodlean (Library) in Oxford on Wednesday, so that's the precedent, and I can understand their opposition because one person can say ‘I'm in charge', but it only takes one protester to cause damage, and with the riots on both previous occasions I can understand why college has done it. Although I'm sure it will be peaceful here."
The protest, which was apparently suggested at a Thursday night meeting of student protest group, Cambridge Against The Cuts, clearly caught a large number of student activists off guard. TCS understands that a considerable proportion of those present in the earlier stages of the protest had only been informed it was occurring, via last-minute text messages to their mobile phones.
Numbers shifted throughout the day, with around 60 protesters present before noon swelling to between 150-200 by 5pm. At a meeting of the protesters, it was immediately and unanimously decided that no damage would be done to University property, even extending to not touching food stored in cupboards on site. Occupiers came equipped with their own food, bedding, home-made sound systems and blueprints of the building obtained from an unknown source.
Although a number of established direct-action student groups were evidently represented, no single group appeared to be in charge, and protesters organised themselves through a meeting in which all occupiers had a vote. Attempts to encourage students to join the occupation were staged from the outset with groups of protesters distributing leaflets while others took turns using a megaphone to encourage involvement from passers-by along King's Parade.
TCS reporters observed that the occupiers mostly consisted of Cambridge University students, although a number of other non-University protesters were present, in addition a group of around twenty pupils from Hills Road Sixth Form College arrived at 7.30pm this evening.
A group comprising of Proctors and other University officials entered the building shortly before 1pm. Initially they requested access to the elevated platform inside the room, which was denied by protesters blocking their path. The Proctors informed those present that they were "already in serious breach of University regulations", and enquired after the occupier's intentions. The protesters responded that they had no intention to commit any act of criminal damage, with one protester noting that they had even put newspapers down while painting protest banners to prevent any damage to the floors of the building. Despite these claims, the protesters were informed that "the University is intent on ceasing the occupation" and that legal measures were already underway towards that end. The reaction to this news was far from hostile, with the University officials being offered a cup of tea, which they refused before leaving the occupied room.
At 2.30pm University officials returned, distributing papers to the protesters that they described as 'injunctions', these were dated (clearly in error) 29th November 2010. The occupiers refused to read these documents, claiming that by doing so, it would leave them unaffected by their content.
At around 3.50pm dismay broke out as a fire alarms were repeatedly activated and deactivated, in what protesters claimed was an attempt by University authorities to intimidate or harass them. The alarms evidently failed to dampen the protesters spirits and an impromptu live acoustic music performance followed. After this, a meeting was held, during which protester demands to be issued to the University were discussed. Around an hour and a quarter of extended discussion followed before it was eventually decided that the content would duplicate the demands from a document that was originally intended to be used for an earlier occupation attempt that week which had been been unsuccessful.
The demand stated "To Cambridge Management: We demand that the University completely oppose all cuts to education and to use its influence to oppose the spending review cuts to education, welfare, health and other services."
The occupation continues.
With a degree ceremony scheduled at the Senate House for tomorrow afternoon, TCS expects that further action from University authorities may be iminent.
James Hooper, Zoah Hedges-Stocks & James Burton
Images: Devon Buchanan