In an unprecedented escalation of the student campaign against rising tuition fees, Universities Minister David Willetts was forced to abandon a lecture at Cambridge University this week after protesters interrupted his speech. Willetts was due to speak on ‘The Idea of University’ at Lady Mitchell Hall, one of the university’s largest lecture theatres. But he had only been speaking for a short time when members of the audience rose and began to read out in unison a pre-prepared letter of protest against the new higher education policy.
The group, many of whom were members of the Cambridge Defend Education campaign, have since remained in the lecture hall, which they are occupying in peaceful protest in support of the national public sector strikes planned for next week. In a statement released after the event, the Cambridge University Student Union accused Willetts and his new higher education policy of “actively damaging…the quality of education that Cambridge [is able to] offer” and of “creating an unfair financial barrier to students from the broadest backgrounds aspiring to university.”
The student protest group National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts has called for more occupations at university buildings across the country in the following week, one of which has already started at Birmingham University.
Upon being interrupted, Willetts quickly left the stage and apparently decided to abort his speech when members of the protest group began to occupy the platform. The protest and occupations are a strong indication of the persistent levels of disillusionment still felt by students who voted for a Liberal Democrat pledge to abolish tuition fees altogether and have seen the coalition government instead allow them to soar to £9000. Cambridge University students involved in the protest claim that the university is a historical stronghold of the right for equal access to education for all; a right they say is being compromised by the impact the new fees will have on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Members of the academic staff of the university have rallied round protesters, bringing them food and supplies and speaking out publicly in support of their cause. Ben Etherington, a research fellow at the Faculty of English, praised “the historical significance of this moment.” He told Cambridge’s student newspaper Varsity “the free expression here is that which attempts to maintain our institution’s capacity to nurture and advance critical thinking.”