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UPDATE: The Defend Education occupation has been evicted after 10 hours. Redbrick was told that the occupiers walked out peacefully after the arrival of multiple vans of police officers. The building remains closed however.
The University have issued a statement saying, ‘The police attended a building at the University of Birmingham following concerns about a group of masked intruders who had locked themselves in and posed a real and present risk to themselves and to the students, staff and visitors in the immediate area. We are extremely disappointed that the illegal action of small number of masked individuals caused considerable disruption to students, staff and visitors and are grateful to the police for their swift response in bringing this matter to a close.’
The group claims they occupied ‘a large part of the Aston Webb Building, which included the Vice-Chancellor’s and Senior Management’s offices, Telecommunications and the Senate Chamber in order to demand the right to free education, to protest and to housing.’ The group argue that ‘The areas we are occupying also play a key role in the corporatisation of our university which sees power concentrated in the hands of the few, education treated as a commodity and our institution become more like a business.’
The building had been occupied since around six o’clock this morning, the group told Redbrick. A spokesperson for the group said that there was a ‘strategic plan’ where multiple groups of people accessed the building through different doors and then locked them behind them. According to the spokesperson, this made entry to the building ‘very easy’. Although the group had been delivered a letter by the University reminding them of the injunction against occupations that remains in place from last year, they told Redbrick they planned on staying until ‘they kick us out’. Defend Education claimed that the injunction only applies to previous occupiers and that the current occupation is made up of entirely new people. The spokesperson also stated that two police officers visited the occupation this morning, but were unsuccessful in gaining entry.
A University of Birmingham spokesperson told Redbrick: ‘We are extremely disappointed that a small number of masked individuals have again illegally occupied a key teaching and administrative space at the University of Birmingham causing considerable disruption to students, staff and visitors. It is particularly disappointing that they have chosen to do so when we have several hundred school pupils visiting who have been unable to access parts of campus. The individuals have blocked off fire exits and restricted access to toilets and lifts, making it difficult for the 1,000 staff, students and visitors who use the space to access the building, and in particular limiting access for any disabled users.
‘Whilst the individuals in occupation are not part of any group affiliated to the University of Birmingham or its student union, we take our duty of care seriously and are particularly concerned that they are putting themselves at serious risk by blocking fire exits. We also have a duty of care to our staff and students and will not tolerate behaviour that causes intimidation, harm to individuals, damage to property, or significant disruption to our university community. Universities are places of free speech and we respect the rights of our students and staff to protest peacefully and within the law. This is clearly outlined in our freedom of speech code of practice. However, staff and students also have a right to go about their daily business without facing intimidation and disorder by a very small minority whose actions disrupt the education of others.’
The occupation had many of the same demands as previous demonstrations by the group, including the lifting of an injunction against occupations, and the removal of suspensions for Kelly Rogers and Simon Furse. According to Defend Education’s spokesperson, the appeal hearing against Furse’s suspension was scheduled for yesterday but was cancelled after Furse challenged one of the members of the panel, claiming a ‘conflict of interest’ may be present.
This entire stretch of the Aston Webb West-Wing was occupied, with a witness at the scene telling Redbrick that the reception had been closed since at least 9.30. The three floors include administrative offices and the Vice-Chancellor’s office, all of which were inaccessible.
A first-year Chemistry student, who asked not to be named, was unable to access the building for their lecture, telling Redbrick they were ‘annoyed’ and that the occupation was a ‘barrier to education’.
There were no visible signs of the occupation from outside the building, but security was present at the main entrance.
— Defend Education (@DefendEdBrum) November 26, 2014
The protest at the University of Birmingham had its troublemakers, but we should make sure not to accuse everyone there of violence and vandalism, and should recognise all of those at fault in this multi-faced debate.