Student’s suspension is a matter for Cambridge, Willetts says

David Willetts has declined to offer any support to a University of Cambridge student who was suspended for two and a half years for heckling him.

March 23, 2012

Appearing at the European University Association’s annual conference at the University of Warwick on 23 March, the universities and science minister was quizzed on the punishment meted out to Owen Holland.

Mr Holland was suspended for seven terms by the university’s authorities for disrupting Mr Willetts while he attempted to speak at one of the university’s lecture halls last year.

The PhD student interrupted the minister by reading out a poem condemning the government’s higher education reforms. When other protesters joined in and repeated the poem, Mr Willetts was forced to abandon his speech.

But academics and student leaders have criticised the punishment, saying it is disproportionate.

They argue that it is unfair to single out Mr Holland when other academics have admitted taking part in the protest.

Mr Willetts has not commented on the matter so far.

However, asked about the incident by Allan Päll, president of the European Students Union, Mr Willetts said: “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.”

A petition calling for Mr Holland’s suspension to be overturned has been signed by more than 7,000 people.

Mr 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.”

Cambridge witnessed more protests this week as Lord Sainsbury was sworn in as the university’s new chancellor.

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