Around 30 masked protesters have occupied a building at the University of Birmingham to demand the reinstatement of two students suspended last week for a previous occupation.
Birmingham students Simon Furse and Kelly Rogers were suspended until March 2015 for their part in the occupation of the university’s senate chamber last autumn in protest over the university’s alleged lobbying for higher fees and failure to pay its cleaning staff a living wage.
A third student, Hattie Craig, was given a formal reprimand and told she also could be suspended if she broke further university regulations in the next six months.
A spokesman for protest movement Defend Education Birmingham said none of the students were involved in the current occupation of Birmingham’s Strathcona Building, which began on 28 July.
As well as demanding the reinstatement of Mr Furse and Ms Rogers and the lifting of the “onerous and inhibitive restrictions” on Ms Craig, the protesters also want Birmingham to recognise occupations as “a legitimate form of protest, with a long and illustrious history”.
They also want the institution to reform its disciplinary procedures to include sentencing guidelines, a right for students to receive legal representation and a requirement that allegations be proved beyond reasonable doubt, instead of on the balance of probabilities.
The spokesman said the Strathcona building had been targeted because it was large and contained offices, lecture theatres and computer clusters. It also has toilets, which were necessary to sustain a long occupation.
“We will stay until the university talk to us about [the] fact they wrongfully suspended two students for protesting, or they kick us out – in which case we will try to find somewhere else to occupy,” he said.
In a statement, Birmingham says it has a “rigorous” disciplinary process.
“Peaceful protest is not a disciplinary offence and the university does not invoke disciplinary procedures lightly,” it says. But last year’s occupation caused “significant disruption to teaching and research”, and the suspensions were “in the interests of the 28,000 students and 6,000 staff at the university”.
It says the protesters – whose masks make it impossible to verify whether they are Birmingham students – have locked doors and blocked fire doors in the Strathcona Building, “causing a danger to themselves and others”.
“Disruption has been caused to more than 200 students on pre-sessional programmes of study who are undertaking courses to prepare them for their first year at Birmingham in the autumn. Planned renovation work to teaching and learning facilities has also been significantly delayed,” it says.
“Universities are places of free speech and we respect the rights of students and staff to protest peacefully and within the law…However when an occupation disrupts students and academic staff in delivering education, it is a matter we take very seriously.
“Staff and students also have a right to go about their daily business without facing intimidation and disorder by a very small minority of people whose actions disrupt the education of others.
“The university has a duty of care to its staff and students and will not tolerate behaviour that causes intimidation, harm to individuals, damage to property, or significant disruption to our university community.”