The vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick has been caught on microphone calling student protesters “yobs”.
Nigel Thrift, who has been personally targeted by a number of campus protests, can be heard making the comment to a police commander at an event to discuss student protests on 12 March.
Professor Thrift’s remarks were made after a two-hour panel debate had ended and it appears he did not know that his microphone was still switched on.
However, Warwick’s registrar Ken Sloan has defended Professor Thrift’s choice of words, saying he had been “targeted personally and directly, both in work and at home” for several weeks before the event.
Professor Thrift had been spat at, confronted and shouted at by multiple people as well as verbally abused late at night close to his home “when his family were in residence”, said Mr Sloan.
Mr Sloan said despite hopes that the summit on student protests would “enhance mutual understanding”, some of those attending ended the event “with megaphone-led chanting and a continued series of personal attacks”.
“The vice-chancellor’s brief verbal response to these acts at the end of the summit was a very human one, not least given the indications from at least one student member that their previous actions would continue unaffected by the discussions at the summit,” Mr Sloan added.
A video of the incident shows students leaving the room, with some of them chanting: “Three, four, eight, K, Nigel Thrift go away”, a reference to his salary. This is followed by audio of what sounds like Professor Thrift’s voice saying: “This shows you what we’re dealing with. These are just yobs.”
The event, run by the Warwick Centre for Human Rights, was designed to improve relations between student groups, police and university management following events at a campus demonstration last term.
In December, the university called police to report an assault on a member of staff during what students say was a peaceful protest about tuition fees at Senate House. A video emerged showing the police using what the National Union of Students said was a “shocking” and “disproportionate” level of force against the protesters. The police said that they used CS spray on the protesters and drew a Taser but it was not pointed or fired at anyone.
The protest group Warwick for Free Education, who were behind the original protest and spoke at the summit, said that Professor Thrift’s comment “distils the patronising and dismissive attitude” presented by management.
“[It] demonstrates the total contempt they feel for their students,” the spokesman said.
“It seems that objecting to being CS gassed and threatened with Tasers makes us ‘yobs’. If that is the case, we’d rather be yobs than authoritarian managers who run universities like businesses and treat angry students like an irrelevant inconvenience,” the spokesman added.
However, Mr Sloan said Professor Thrift’s reaction was understandable.
“Campaigns of targeted intimidation, which also affect many more people than the person directly targeted, should never be seen – and will never be seen – as acceptable,” he said.
Nonetheless, Warwick was keen to support peaceful protest on campus and consider enhanced engagement between students and senior management, he said.
“As university colleagues indicated during this event, we will work with others to continue to ensure that peaceful protest and demonstration are able to be facilitated on campus by responding to the suggestions that were made in response to the survey and at the summit,” he said.