Friday, December 31, 2010

Protesting students call on archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been called on to help end a dispute between a university and students who are continuing an occupation in protest at rises in tuition fees. 

The students have been staging a sit-in at the Senate building at the University of Kent in Canterbury since December 8 and have remained there throughout Christmas.

University officials aim to regain control of the building by seeking a possession order at a hearing at Canterbury County Court on January 7.

But the five-strong group of students vowed to stay put indefinitely to highlight their opposition to the rise in tuition fees and cuts in higher education.

The students want the university and its vice-chancellor Julia Goodfellow to condemn the Government's plans publicly.

They said their occupation was a reaction to Prof Goodfellow signing a letter, published in the Daily Telegraph on December 8, endorsing a hike in tuition fees.

Prof Goodfellow has since written an open letter in which she said she deplored cuts to higher education funding, but the students said this did not meet their demands.

The students have now written to the Archbishop, Rowan Williams, in the hope that as a visitor to the university he will act as mediator to help resolve the impasse.

No response has been received, one of the occupiers, 20-year-old philosophy student Ben Stevenson, said today.

The occupiers said in a statement that the "savage cuts and substantial rise in fees should not be under-estimated".

Their statement added: "We feel that education should be seen as a public good and therefore a crucial investment, and that if education has to be perceived as a commodity, then it is one of our last great exportable commodities, and deserves to be protected.

"We oppose cuts that will result in university institutions being a privilege accessible solely to the few.

"Our occupation is completely peaceful and we maintain consistency in our objectives and feel this is imperative until our demands are met."

The students alleged that the heating was turned off during the cold weather, that they have been unable to leave the building for fresh air and that their internet connection has been cut.

People have been turning up with food donations for them and they have been passing the time watching films and maintaining contact with supporters via Twitter and Facebook using a 3G dongle.

The students intend to issue a letter to universities encouraging students and staff to sign as a counter-measure to the letter signed by Prof Goodfellow and other board members of Universities UK.

Their statement went on: "We have also been in contact with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Due to his capacity as Visitor to the University of Kent, we hope he may act as mediator in our current dispute with the university administration." 

Fellow campaigners at universities across the country, including Bristol, University College London and Leeds, all staged occupations but most ended after two weeks.

A candlelit vigil will be held at 5pm on January 1 outside the occupied Senate building to show support for the protesters.

The students added: "Our university occupation is now officially the last running in Great Britain and we are aiming to maintain action throughout the Christmas and New Year period until we feel that our demands have been met.

"We stand in solidarity with all those who are fighting the cuts and will stand behind those sectors of the society who feel the force of the Government's austerity measures which are wholly unnecessary, as these reforms will not just impact educational institutions but all areas of welfare.

"The struggle against cuts is ongoing and this occupation is one form of opposition to the Government's austerity measures.

"If the movement against cuts is to have any impact then it will need to be diverse in its methods, dedicated to its aims and well coordinated between the various sectors of society."

Nobody from the university was available for immediate comment today.

In a previously-issued statement, it said the university had sought to establish common ground with the students.

As the students had indicated no intention to leave, they felt it necessary to take legal action and seek a possession order through the courts.

The Senate building is due for essential maintenance work and will be needed for university meetings after the Christmas closure, it added.