Free University of Sheffield campaigners occupy auditorium to highlight ‘assault on higher education’

Campaigners receive message of support from Nobel laureate who says students 'should be supported in full'

Aftab Ali
Student Editor
Tuesday 01 March 2016 13:50
Education officer at the students' union, pictured, says: 'We're currently suffering the most severe threats to universities in a generation'
Education officer at the students' union, pictured, says: 'We're currently suffering the most severe threats to universities in a generation'

Students at one of the UK’s leading universities for research and teaching have announced they are occupying one of the institution’s auditoriums to “resist the current assault on higher education.”

The Free University of Sheffield students - a grassroots organisation which campaigns for no fees, no privatisation, and a living wage - said they had planned to sit in the Richard Roberts Auditorium, insisting they would not be disrupting learning while sitting to the side.

However, on Tuesday, the group expressed its disappointment as it confirmed the university had cancelled all lectures in the theatre, something which it said was contrary to its aims.

The Free University of Sheffield said: “From the start of our occupation, we planned to create a space that embodied our principles of free education, by making the space our own. However, this was never to be at the inconvenience of students expecting to have lectures in the auditorium.

“We planned to welcome students with lectures to our space, and move to the side while they received their education. We are not trying to disrupt our fellow students’ education; we are not the Government.

“The university has decided to move all of the lectures scheduled to take place in the auditorium to other parts of campus. This was practically unnecessary because of our willingness to facilitate the prior organised lectures, and because we had clearly communicated that to university management.”

The protesters accused university management of “restrict access to critical voices and dissent,” adding: “It is not in their interests to expose their students to criticisms of their model of capitalist, competitive, individualistic education. We call on students to come and visit our occupation and find out for themselves our vision of a free university.”

The Free University of Sheffield also confirmed on Tuesday it received an email of support from Nobel Prize-winning biochemist and molecular biologist, Sir Richard J. Roberts, whom the auditorium in question was named after. He reportedly said: “I support you completely. I wish I was there and could join you. Your goals are not only laudable, but should be supported in full.”

Announcing its occupation of the auditorium beginning on Monday afternoon, the group had said in an original statement: “In recent years, we’ve seen the complete separation of the public from our ‘public’ education system. In this era of marketisation, we’re seeing students treated as consumers - to be passive recipients of information for the sake of employability - rather than producers of knowledge.”

Education officer with Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU), Minesh Parekh, said he was lending his support to the students’ cause because “we’re currently suffering the most severe threats to universities in a generation.”

Mr Parekh continued: “It’s great to see students resisting this and creating an alternative model by reclaiming the university and its purpose: to be transformative as a site of learning and discovery.”

One of the students involved in the occupation, third-year languages student, Demaine Boocock, said: “Over the last few years, we’ve seen increasing tuition fees, the end of all grants, and the dismembering of the public university, all of which acts toward treating students as consumers.

“Employability is now at the forefront of our education and we have become passive recipients of information, rather than producers of knowledge. Apart from undermining the value of genuine learning, this new model is destroying critical discussion in universities which is at the core part of a healthy educational system.”

First-year English literature student, Chris Townsend, described the university as being “under attack” at the hands of the Government: “Students are debt-ridden. Instead of being encouraged to nurture curiosity, critical thinking and the love of learning, they are pressured to pursue higher education as a means to employability.

“Academics are bullied into providing neo-liberal ‘student experience’ rather than creating open exchange. We need to challenge this situation by realising our power to protest and power to unite.”

A spokesperson from the University of Sheffield told the Independent the institution understands the increasing marketisation of higher education is “rightly an issue very close to the hearts” of many of its staff and students. Along with universities across the country, the spokesperson said: “We have outlined these concerns in detail as part of our response to the Government’s green paper on higher education.

“As a university, we fully support freedom of speech and the right of students to express their views peacefully and within the law. The university recognises the commitment of the occupiers to peacefully protest. However, it cannot condone occupation of a building that could cause disruption to our staff and students.”

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