Universities Minister finally comments on student's rustication

Michael Yoganayagam, Associate News Editor 24 March 2012

Universities Minister David Willetts has declined to offer any support to PhD student Owen Holland, who was suspended for seven terms last week for his involvement in an anti-Willetts protest last year.

Willetts had so far refused to comment on the matter, which has outraged students and academics nationwide. However, appearing at the European University Association’s annual conference at the University of Warwick on Friday, Willetts was asked about Holland’s actions and sentence by Allan Pall, president of the European Students Union. Willetts responded: “It is important to sustain freedom of speech in universities, but it was the only time that I have been shouted down and been unable to give a speech. I had many people who wrote in and were very shocked about what happened.”

Of the punishment, he added: “It is a matter for the university and for their disciplinary procedures.”

Willetts said he was still keen to engage with students despite the hostile receptions that have greeted some of his visits to universities. “One can engage with students,” he said. “I was at Southampton where students were addressing me through a loudhailer. They could not hear me because they were talking so loudly, so I was able to use their loudhailer to speak to them.”

Owen Holland was among a group of protesters from activist group Cambridge Defend Education who interrupted a talk by Willetts (pictured above left, as the protest started) in Lady Mitchell Hall on the Sidgwick Site on November 22nd last year. Willetts was prevented from speaking at all, as several students around the hall began chanting a 25-minute poem beginning “David Willetts, the future does not belong to you/This is an epistle that is addressed to you”. The chanting was done using the so-called “people’s microphone” method, whereby Owen Holland read out each line, which was then repeated back by all the other protesters. Willetts had been due to give a speech on “The Idea of the University”, but left the hall during the course of the ‘epistle’. The protest divided opinion among Cambridge students, many of whom, including CUSU President Gerard Tully, claimed that it had violated David Willetts’ right to freedom of speech. The protest was followed by a week-long occupation of Lady Mitchell Hall by Cambridge Defend Education activists.

University Council sources confirm that Vice-Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz phoned Willetts following the protest to apologise in a personal capacity for the hijacking of his speech. Two days after the protest, the University Council issued a “Statement on the Principle of Freedom of Speech in the University”, expressing “its deep regret” that “the actions of a small group of protestors ” had prevented Willetts from speaking. The statement went on: “The Council values diversity of opinion and view. It believes that freedom of expression and speech is a fundamental principle of the University. The action of the protestors violated this principle.”

Holland was found guilty by the University’s Court of Discipline last week of “recklessly or intentionally impeding free speech within the Precincts of the University” and ruled that Holland not be allowed to attend the University until October 2014 – a so-called ‘rustication’ of seven terms. It is understood Holland is appealing the decision.

A petition was soon launched by Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU), entitled “This Is Not Justice: Stop the Sentence”, calling on the Septemvirii (the University appeal court) to quash the “extreme sentence”. It has so far gathered 2900 signatures from Cambridge students and academics, and states: “Given that 60 other members of the University publicly stated that they were also involved in the protest for which the student has been punished, we are deeply concerned that the University has singled out one individual.

“We believe, irrespective of individual opinions on the action itself, that this exemplary and punitive sentence undermines the University’s professed commitment to freedom of speech and the right to protest.

“We call for the suspended student to be reinstated.”

Over 100 members of the University staged a silent protest against the decision outside the Senate House on Wednesday morning, while Lord Sainsbury was being officially installed as the new University Chancellor. Speaking to the BBC at the protest, Dr Drew Milne, Holland’s PhD supervisor said he was “very concerned at the damage this is likely to do to his research”. He went on: “I think it’s a clear case of victimisation – a student who has been picked out from a large group in a collective protest, presumably to make an example of him but in a way that I think is completely unfair.”

A new letter, which is to be sent to the Vice-Chancellor next week, is currently being circulated amongst Cambridge academics for their signature, which states, “In imposing this sentence, the Court of Discipline has brought the University into disrepute”, noting the negative publicity that the decision has received in national and international media. The letter seeks to “deplore and condemn in the strongest possible terms” Owen Holland’s sentence, and calls for “a review of the processes used by the Court of Discipline, in order to guarantee that they are as transparent and as fair as the University’s members require”. The letter ends demanding Owen Holland’s “reinstatement with immediate effect”.

Michael Yoganayagam, Associate News Editor