Student protest against Leeds Trinity's fee rises is longest sit-in in the country

The activists tell Richard Garner why they won’t give up the fight

You drive past Horsforth Cricket Club as you approach Leeds Trinity University College. The leafy Leeds suburb gives you no indication you are about to approach one of the most impressive (or militant, depending upon your point of view) examples of student protest witnessed in the past year.

Yet the students at the college have notched up the record for the longest occupation/sit-in in the country, since demonstrations against the rise in tuition fees began last November. In some ways, it is a very British protest – going on now with the blessing of the university management, which says it is "supportive" of their protest against government cuts.

The students themselves have also been accommodating to the college management. When they realised it could cost the university money if they continued to stage their protest in a defunct staff room due for development, they reached agreement to move to another office.

Andy Smith, aged 28 and a second-year psychology student who is the most prominent amongst the demonstrators, says: "We're protesting about cuts to higher education and we were there to make sure the college spent its money wisely. If there were delays in the contractor moving into the building, there would be fines for the college – and that didn't seem to make sense."

The occupation started when the students returned from the first mass demonstration against the fee rises in November – notorious for the storming of the Conservative party headquarters at Millbank. The Leeds Trinity group on that demonstration did not join the occupation but milled around outside the building, as they knew they had to get back to Leeds by coach that evening.

At first, it was students from the psychology department who were in the forefront of the protest. "I think 11 of the 13 that went down to London for the demonstration were from psychology," says Andy Smith. It made it difficult to keep up the 24-hour occupation if there was a key psychology lecture about to take place. "We had to text round furiously to see if could get other students to take over," says Jordan Kelly, aged 19, who is a forensic-science student.

The protesters were sustained during the occupation by staff at the university, who kept on bringing them cakes and cups of tea and coffee to sustain them. This is in sharp contrast to the more high-profile protests at University College London, where the university took legal action to remove the students.

Because the students have been so conscientious and well organised, they are adamant that the occupation has not affected their studies. For the duration of the occupation, they have operated a sort of rota. In fact, their tutors predict that those involved in it will do well in their exams. There is also a note pinned to the door saying that if their present office is unoccupied at any time, it is only because they have had to shoot off to take an exam and someone will be back soon. The students themselves believe being involved in the occupation has bolstered their confidence.

Tanis Belsham-Wray, an 18-year-old first-year psychology student, says: "I didn't really do any public speaking beforehand. I've got a lot in terms of organisational skills and the confidence to do things out of it. Also, there's motivation – you put so much energy into it." Andy Smith adds: "It really does build life skills. Perhaps it should be a mandatory part of every student's course."

Leeds Trinity is a small university with a strength in teacher-training and journalism courses and 3,500 students. But it does not hit the headlines as much as its better-known counterparts in the city – the Russell Group Leeds University and Leeds Metropolitan. As Jordan Kelly put it: "At least you can Google us and see what we've done now."

The occupation has been scaled back now that the students – who are independent of the students' union at the university (although five of them have won places on its executive next year) – have been granted official permission to occupy an unused office in the building. There is no need to mount an overnight occupation because they know they are not going to be turfed out.

From the university's point of view, Professor Freda Bridge, principal and chief executive of the university, says: "We are supportive of their campaign against government cuts in higher education and have worked positively with them to ensure they can carry out their protest. The students initiated a sit-in in December which they have continued to date.

"By providing them with an office base we placed our trust in them to continue their activities in a peaceful manner and they have respected this by maintaining a well-organised protest that is not disruptive to our business and they have been professional at all times," she adds.

Has this very polite protest achieved anything, though?

One of the reasons the students first started their occupation was a perceived threat to the university from the Coalition Government's plan to move teacher training out of universities into schools. (The university is adamant that it has a robust future.)

They have taken their protest out into the local community, making links with local political groups and turning it into a protest generally about the impact of public-spending cuts and have successfully set up a "Horsforth Against The Cuts" campaign, which has taken to the streets to oppose local spending cuts. They probably would not have envisaged that happening at Horsforth Cricket Club a few months ago.

Will it continue next year? Well, it is being stood down for the summer holidays but next term it is expected to start again when the students plan to put up marchers who are planning to recreate the 1936 Jarrow march against unemployment as they make their way to London.

What academics and students at the university would agree upon is that it has created a breed of students who will not be apathetic and will want to take an active part in the future democratic life of the country. Andy Smith, for instance, stood for election (albeit unsuccessfully) to the local council this summer.

CAMPUS CONFLICT: A HISTORY

Any history of student militancy would not be complete without a mention of the sit-in at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the late 1960s, when student protests were at their height, brought on by opposition to the Vietnam war. So the country witnessed protests outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, and also 250 students protesting outside the US Consulate in Edinburgh.

The 1967 LSE occupation began after the disciplining of two students – David Adelstein, president of the LSE students' union, and Marshall Bloom, president of the university's Graduates Students' Association – for the parts they had played in protesting against the appointment of the LSE's new director, Dr Walter Adams. The duo were suspended for their actions. During their protest, a porter had died.

The appointment was controversial because Dr Adams had previously been principal of University College, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was therefore associated with Ian Smith's illegal regime, which was running the country after a unilateral declaration of independence.

Students demanded the suspensions be lifted after a post-mortem examination showed the porter had died of a heart attack, which could have happened at any time. They began a boycott of their lectures and occupied the main LSE building in Houghton Street. Inside were about 400 demonstrators, singing protest songs and chanting "we shall not be moved". The occupation was successful. The students expressed regret and the suspensions were lifted.

Over the next couple of years, the LSE was the centre of a range of sit-ins and occupations over various issues – including expressing solidarity with protesting students in France.

It was followed by further sit-ins at universities around the country – mostly over domestic, local issues such as student representation in college governance, demands for better accommodation, lower fees or even canteen prices.

After the mid-1970s, the student protests faded away and were really only revived again last year with the series of protests during the winter over the proposed rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year.

For the most part, they have been peaceful, although a group of protesters did storm the Conservative party headquarters at Millbank during the first protest and surrounded a royal car ferrying Prince Charles and Camilla to the theatre at a subsequent demonstration.

Student politics first emerged in UK universities in the 1880s, but it was not until 1921 that the National Union of Students (NUS) was formed. As part of its original remit, it undertook not to indulge in "political or religious interests".

That strategy began to be ditched in the 1930s, with the setting up of several socialist societies at universities. These ranged from being social democratic to Marxist-Leninist to Trotskyite in their political affilIations. During this period, the NUS elected its first Communist president, Brian Simon.

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