Student leaders, academics, campaign groups and an MP have criticised what they believe is an attack on the right to protest on campus after a wave of university occupations.
Sit-ins and demonstrations at nine universities last week led to numerous arrests and student suspensions, with the University of London obtaining an injunction to ban further “occupational protests” on and around its Bloomsbury campus.
However, many have questioned whether the crackdown is proportionate and have criticised the violent break-up of the London sit-in.
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said she was “appalled” by the handling of student protests in Sussex and London. Calling for an inquiry into allegations of police brutality in London, she said university occupations were “legitimate tactics”, while legal orders banning them were “disproportionate and draconian”.
Tabling an early day motion in the Commons, John McDonnell MP said students were being “persecuted”, and all protests that took place had been “peaceful”. “Suspending students for an occupation is not acceptable,” he said.
Students were being met with “real intimidation” when protesting, and video footage of police action in London appeared to show “real violence”, he added. But Chris Cobb, chief operating officer at London, said action was needed after the “violent and intimidating behaviour” of protesters, while police say arrests followed breaches of the peace.
The suspension of five Sussex students involved in the sit-in was lifted on 9 December after more than 9,000 people signed a petition expressing no confidence in the executive group of the university’s vice-chancellor Michael Farthing. But the students still face disciplinary action over the occupation, which Sussex says posed “a threat to the safety and well-being of students, staff and visitors”.
The petition, organised by the university’s student union, called on all students to join a day of action on 10 December. A separate letter signed by 30 professors from the universities of Sussex and Brighton has also condemned the “attempt to criminalise” students for their activism.