The university vice-chancellor who has been criticised for obtaining an injunction banning student demonstrations has accused protesters of adopting “aggressive and intimidatory” tactics.
In his first interview since the injunction was granted last week, Professor Sir Adrian Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of London, told The Independent that in more than “40 years of academic life” he had never been “involved in anything like this”.
He said the final straw had been when students occupying his office and administrative building closed down the fire escape – which was a safety risk for staff.
“There is a gang – only a minority – who actually want to be aggressive and intimidatory. It’s been really dangerous,” he said. “They barricaded the corridor and closed down the fire escape. There were masked people climbing up to the balcony, trying to get through the windows. It was a situation where we instantly seemed under siege. The atmosphere has fundamentally changed in recent times. There is a sea-change in the level of aggression.”
The origins of the dispute go back to a review carried out on the future of ULU (the University of London Union) – which concluded that it should be closed.
Professor Smith argued that ULU had become an anachronism, as the 18 colleges it caters for now have their own student unions. This left ULU with a mainly political campaigning role; Professor Smith said there was concern among colleges that they were having to pay for the sabbaticals of union officers. “To say we were denying the students a democratic voice, that’s just gibberish,” he said.
The protests also concerned the wages of cleaning and catering staff. Last week the University of London’s headquarters was also the focal point for a demonstration in support of the “cops off campuses” campaign.
In a letter to staff and students last week, Professor Smith wrote: “No one has a problem with peaceful, lawful student protests. The problem isn’t the principle of protest: it’s the methods currently being deployed, which I challenge anyone to consider peaceful when they view the protesters’ own videos.”
Students have claimed that any violent reaction has been as a result of the violence shown by the police on demonstrations.