A Cambridge student was suspended from the university for two-and-a-half years today for his part in a protest during a speech by the Universities Minister David Willetts.
The “unprecedented” sentence handed down to Owen Holland, a PhD student in the Faculty of English, came on the same day as students marched in London and walked out of institutions across the country to demand Mr Willetts’ resignation. The student read out a poem during a visit by the minister last year, each line of which was other protesting students repeated back.
They criticised Mr Willetts for his role in the implementation of higher student fees during the talk in November last year and told him to “go home”. The students chanting the ‘epistle’ stopped Willetts from speaking, and eventually forced him from the lecture hall before he was able to give the planned speech.
Mr Holland also sought to condemn the minister, calling him “a man who believes in the market and in the power of competition”.
“I didn’t expect the sentence to be as harsh as has been handed down. The worst the university advocate, who was prosecuting, was pressing for was a single term, and she would have been happy with a fine,” Owen Holland said on Wednesday.
After a six-hour hearing today, Mr Holland was found guilty of impeding the minister’s freedom of speech. Rees Arnott-Davies, a student at Corpus Christi College said: “this is out of all proportion. Two and a half years for an entirely legal and peaceful protest is an absolute travesty and makes me ashamed to study at this university. The idea that you can protect freedom of speech by silencing protest is the height of hypocrisy.”
Another student said: “It is unprecedented. People are shocked, we were expecting a fine or maybe a short suspension but he will not be able to continue his studies until late-2014.”
After the institution decided to charge Mr Holland, more than 60 dons and students wrote to University authorities admitting to their role in the protest and demanding to be charged of the same offence.
In the letter the signatories object to the fact that only one person has been prosecuted for the protest. The signatories denounced the charges as “arbitrary and wrong” pointing out that the protest was “a collective act and that we the undersigned were all involved in it – whether directly or indirectly, actively or in a supportive capacity”.
But University authorities were unmoved and pressed ahead with the disciplinary action.
Earlier today Mr Willetts faced calls to leave his post from students angry at his role in implementing the government’s controversial higher education reforms. Organisers estimated that around one thousand students marched through London shouting slogans and carrying placards.
A national day of action, organised by the National Union of Students, saw thousands of students across the country walk out of classrooms and a supplementary march by protest group the Education Activist Network targeted Mr Willetts himself, demanding he step down. A Metropolitan Police spokesman confirmed no arrests were made.
A Cambridge University spokesman said: “The University notes the decision of the Court of Discipline in its proceedings held today.
"By Statute the Court of Discipline is an independent body which is empowered to adjudicate when a student is charged by the University Advocate with an offence against the discipline of the University. The Court may impose a range of sentences as defined in the Statutes.”
Mr Holland has a right to appeal the decision in the next 28 days.
Regarding today's student protests a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesperson said: “We are putting students at the heart of the system, with a diverse range of providers offering high-quality teaching. Going to university depends on ability not the ability to pay.
"Most new students will not pay upfront, there will be more financial support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and everyone will make lower monthly loan repayments than they do now once they are in well paid jobs."