Andy Martin: My students have had a political awakening. And I'm with them

A Cambridge lecturer on the sit-in at his university
Click to follow
The Independent Online

They felt bad about the snowball. You could blame Manu Chao. His song "Bongo Bong" was belting out of the loudspeaker at the time, rigged up on the Senate House lawn. And so naturally everybody started throwing snowballs. A woman in a green hat with big ear flaps announced over a loudhailer, "Please don't throw snowballs, because we have an official policy of non-violence."

It was at that moment that a visiting sixth-former threw the snowball that broke one of the rather expensive ancient Senate House windows. A collective chant went up: "Let's fix this window! We broke it so we'll fix it!" A collection went around to pay for the window.

In order to understand the occupation at Cambridge University, which was on its tenth day yesterday, you need to forget stereotypes. There was no "vandalism". No drunken revels (alcohol and tobacco prohibited). No Molotov cocktails, no barricades. But a lot of deeply passionate and reasoned argument, placards quoting Wittgenstein, and a mood of revolt.

Frankie O'Hara (an alias), aged 21, studying art history at King's College, said: "I've learned more in eight days here than I ever learned before." She comes from a "well-off" family and a private school in central London. "I was brought up in a very caring environment where politics were regarded as being for other people. I was reading my book on 13th-century French cathedrals and I felt just like Britney Spears: 'I trust the government'."

The turning-point came when she started reading the Browne Review. "I thought, this is awful." She joined the Occupation "with a desire to learn", and found herself in the midst of talks on Kant, Marx, William Morris, Ruskin, and Gendered History. "In three days I realised that the government's policy is clearly ideological, not just economic."

I am one of the many academics who have rallied to the student call for support. I am not the only one to be impressed and moved by the New Wave of student activists. "I have never known such a good-humoured and intelligent demonstration," said one of the Proctors cheerfully yesterday, accompanied by a force of "bulldogs", the caped and top-hatted university constables. He should, by rights, have been outraged at the goings-on, particularly since they have been declared illegal after a court injunction. Instead, he was only perturbed that several hundred people had packed into the "Great Room" (asWilliam Morris called it) which is only supposed to hold a maximum of 150.

It could have been worse than the Snowball Incident. On Friday night the police and some anonymous bouncers in balaclavas arrived in force to blockade the main gate manned by the students. And a bunch of we academics turned up to try to break through the cordon. The students out-generalled everyone with a human gauntlet thrown right through the police lines that enabled all the academics to get through. Peacefully. No snowballs. No assaults. No nights in police cells. "That was the highlight of the occupation," said Frankie.

Which is how mass camaraderie broke out in Cambridge and I came to meet a lot of students and fellow academics I had never known before. Lily Cole for one, the fashion icon, actor, and student. Like Frankie, she is a convert to the cause and talks about the risk of "losing the country's most wonderful and enviable assets" and how important it is to keep all universities open to people (like herself) from a "modest background".

A French academic and ex-anarchist said: "The students are so much more serious and focused now. They are responding because in this country we lack a counter-power."

The University has no single voice, made up as it is of 31 colleges and the central administration. The vice-chancellor is not like a CEO of a big company. But a lot of people fear the University is trying to become like one. Giving the job of reviewing higher education to the ex-boss of BP struck a note of "creeping corporatism".

Dr Deborah Bowman, 32, a director of studies in English at Gonville and Caius College, said: "There is a risk of turning a university degree into an object," she said. "It should be OK to say that we are not just economic entities. Do we want a country in which we are all trying to earn as much as we possibly can – or having rich, fulfilling lives? We are in danger of creating a higher education system in which these are seen as the same thing – and they aren't."

Dr Andy Martin is a lecturer in French in Cambridge University's Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages

A national issue

By Sofia Mitra-Thakur


Dozens of students have occupied a lecture theatre at Manchester University's Roscoe Building for 14 days. Thousands of people have attended protests in the city in the past fortnight. During a demonstration last Wednesday police arrested five people.


Students at the University of Plymouth have occupied a room at the university for 13 days in protest at the education cuts, demanding the university oppose higher tuition fees, increase bursaries and hardship funds to reflect the rise in fees, and cut senior staff salaries of more than £100,000. Talks have failed to resolve the issue.


Around 100 students occupying a lecture theatre for the past 12 days are arranging a student and lecturer strike across the city. Thousands of students from universities, colleges and schools have taken to marching through the city centre in the last two weeks.


The sit-in by 200 people at University College London has reached a sixth day. A judge has postponed a decision on whether to evict them until tomorrow. Solidarity occupations are flourishing at the London School of Economics, King's College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and among architecture students from the Bartlett and students at the Slade School of Fine Art, with celebrity support from Billy Bragg, Mark Thomas and Richard Herring.


Students have occupied a building at the University of Sheffield for five days after a protest march past the constituency office of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. They faced eviction after university lawyers won a High Court injunction to remove them.


About 60 students have occupied the Fine Arts building of Newcastle University for 12 days demanding the university rejects the higher education cuts and rises in fees. The students say their protest is not a "glorified sleep over" and plan to continue.


Around 30 students have occupied the University of York's Exhibition Centre for the past five days. They plan to stay there around-the-clock for at least another 10 days.