Cambridge students hijack Willetts speech

Dead heat in David Willetts "no confidence" vote 22 November 2011

Students affiliated to Cambridge Defend Education this evening interrupted a speech by Universities Minister David Willetts on The Idea of the University in the Lady Mitchell Hall on the Sidgwick Site.

Just as Willetts took to the stage at 6pm, and before he had even managed to say a word, the students, led by Owen Holland, began chanting: “David Willetts, the future does not belong to you. This is an epistle that is addressed to you,” before launching in to what seemed to be a pre-prepared speech, lasting 25 minutes. In a rather florid tirade, students told Willetts, “You cannot steal our money, David – it will go sour for you”, and well as chanting “Willetts, Willetts, Willetts! Out, Out, Out!” Students then proceeded to occupy the stage.

Willetts left the stage as soon as the students began speaking. Professor Simon Goldhill, the Director of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) who organised the talk, announced at 6.25 that Willetts would no longer be speaking. He expressed his outrage at the students occupying the stage, telling them: “Who are you talking to? He’s gone.”

He went on: “Really sorry for the people who came here for a real debate that have to witness this self-indulgent nonsense.”

UPDATE: Students declare an occupation.

Students were allowed to leave, but security prevented anyone entering via main doors. The occupiers have instead opened the fire exits, and more students have entered the building. There are now over approximately 35 students in the occupation.

CUSU President Gerard Tully, said in a statement: “David Willetts is the architect of higher education policy which is actively damaging to the quality of education that Cambridge (and other universities) offer and creates an unfair financial barrier to students from the broadest backgrounds aspiring to University. It is entirely right that students and academics protest these policies, as over 100 did today before Mr Willetts’ talk. Tonight students had the opportunity and choice to hear and question Mr Willetts, in the 800-year old tradition of academic enquiry and freedom of speech that Cambridge has pioneered. Students have now been denied that opportunity, and CUSU cannot support this.

Freedom of expression is one of the founding principles of University education – no matter how objectionable the views being espoused are. Students believe in this principle and so does CUSU, so we cannot support any protest that violates it – which the disruption of David Willetts’ talk tonight clearly did.”

Richard Johnson, Chair of Cambridge University Labour Club echoed Tully’s sentiments: “I think that David Willetts and the coalition’s university policies are a disgrace, but democracy requires that even those with whom we disagree deeply are allowed to speak freely. As a left-wing person, I’m sympathetic to CDE’s goals of eliminating socio-economic barriers to education, but I don’t believe you achieve that by shouting someone down.”

UPDATE: Students injured by University security guards

Cambridge Defend Education has released a statement announcing that five Cambridge University students have been injured and ‘aggressively assaulted’ by security guards. Several claim to have been dragged across gravel by their legs, and Richard Brodie, a PhD student at Pembroke College, said: “I felt crushed by the security guards, and couldn’t breathe. It’s astounding that the University would allow such violence against their students who are protesting to save education in this country.”

Faith Taylor, a student at St John’s College, said: “Before even asking me to move, security guards grabbed my clothing and arm. I asked them to stop and they ignored me. My arm is still hurting.”

More updates to follow.

Judith Welikala, Emily Loud & Zoah Hedges-Stocks

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