On Wednesday 24 November 2010, a rally and march took place in Cambridge to protest against the Government's proposals for Higher Education funding. A crowd of several hundred people, a majority apparently sixth-form students but including many students of the University, gathered in front of Great St Mary's Church at 12 noon. The march and demonstration moved into Senate-House Yard. Demonstrators chanted slogans and displayed banners. At approximately 2.30 pm police protecting the Old Schools building were pushed back against the building by demonstrators attempting forcible entry of the building. Missiles were thrown at police. Attempts to push in the doors leading to Cobble Court, and then to the Council Room, were resisted by Proctors, Constables, and University Security, putting their weight against the incursion from the inside of the doors.
On Friday 26 November 2010, a sit-in began in the University Combination Room. As far as can be ascertained, the occupiers were a mix of University of Cambridge students and others.
The occupiers padlocked open the gate to Senate-House Passage (the North Gate) allowing free movement of the occupiers and their supporters - but not others - into and out of the Combination Room. The immediate effect of their actions was to deny the University use of the University Combination Room, the means of access to the room, the Senate-House and Senate-House Yard. It was unclear whether any further attempt would be made at forcible entry of other parts of the building.
University Proctors spoke to the occupiers on the day of the initial occupation, warned them that they were in breach of University regulations and the law of trespass, and asked them to leave, without positive response. Later that same day the University sought and obtained an order in the County Court requiring the protestors to leave. There was particular concern that the Congregation the following day, Saturday 27 November, would be disrupted.
However, the original order was not in the event served on the occupiers, and early on the afternoon of Monday 29 November the occupiers were given notice of a further hearing later that day. At this second hearing, some 20 representatives of the occupiers attended at court and the Judge heard representations from the President of CUSU opposing the order and seeking an adjournment. The Judge refused an adjournment and granted both a possession order and an injunction requiring the occupiers not to enter or remain on specified property, including the Combination Room and Senate-House Yard. The Judge made clear to the occupiers at the hearing that they were required by the court to leave the premises forthwith. The court's order was endorsed with a penal notice stating that any person who fails to comply with the order may be guilty of contempt of court. This new order was formally served on the occupiers on Monday evening. Despite the legal position being made clear to the occupiers, the occupation continued in breach of the court order.
The University issued the following statement at 5.pm on Monday 29 November:
"While the University hopes for a peaceful and consensual end to the occupation of the Combination Room by students who are trespassing on University property, legal means have been pursued to control the situation. There was a hearing at Cambridge County Court at 4pm today at which Judge Taylor granted the University a Possession Order and an injunction against the students. This means that any student remaining in the Combination Room from now on is in contempt of Court and committing a criminal act."
On Tuesday 30 November a further rally and march took place, with protestors, including many minors, pushing through to enter Senate-House Yard. A window in the Old Schools was smashed, causing the evacuation of staff from rooms facing the Yard.
On Wednesday 1 December, since their demands had not been met by a deadline they had advertised, the occupiers sought to disrupt normal work in the Old Schools as much as they could by making noise. Groups moved around the outside of the Old Schools and into the entrance lobby into Cobble Court, banging on office doors and windows. At that point, both the East Room and the Blue Room were evacuated because an incursion was feared.
A second statement was issued on 2 December 2010 at 4.30pm:
"The University's stance is straightforward: those occupying the Combination Room are doing so illegally, in breach of a court order requiring them to vacate the premises. While that remains the case, the University does not intend to enter any dialogue with them.
The Vice-Chancellor has offered to meet a delegation of student representatives of the occupation, to receive their demands, and to put those demands to the University Council. It would be inappropriate for him to do so, however, while they continue illegally to occupy University premises."
On Friday 3 December occupiers denied access to the Old Schools completely by blocking entrances and exits. Staff arriving from 7.15 am were turned away. Eight members of staff were already in the building. Police were summoned, and when the extent was understood of the possible danger to life - both of the eight members of staff and an unknown number who were still in the Combination Room - the Fire and Rescue Service was summoned. Fire officers spoke to those blockading the building, seeking to gain access to verify the conditions which existed inside the building. They were refused access, but the students moved from the vehicle entrance later that morning.
On Friday afternoon, in response to rising concerns about safety, and anticipating increased numbers on the evening of the last day of term, the Registrary, a Proctor and the University Marshal, accompanied by the police commander and senior fire officer, entered the Combination Room, to try to persuade the occupiers to leave the premises. The fire officer made clear that the risk of injury from fire and other causes was severe; the police commander and the Registrary made clear once more that the occupation was in breach of a court order, and the Proctor made clear that the occupiers were in breach of multiple University regulations. Occupiers made no positive response. Police, accompanied by the Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, a University Proctor, University Security staff and Constables (but not by the court officers necessary to effect an eviction) made an attempt to enter the room to establish the safety conditions. They found the fire-door through which they attempted to enter had been securely padlocked from within and were unable to gain access.
A further statement was issued on Friday 3 December at 8pm:
"This afternoon senior representatives from the Police, the Fire Service and the University, in the persons of the Registrary, the University Marshal and a Proctor, entered the Combination Room at the Old Schools on King's Parade, and told the occupiers present that they should now leave the building."
"If they did not, they explained, there was potential for criminal proceedings, serious fire-risk implications and the implementation of University disciplinary proceedings against those who remained."
Later on the evening of Friday 3 December, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire Authority issued a Prohibition Notice stating that the unauthorized student occupation of the Combination Room involved, or would involve, a risk to persons on the premises in the event of fire so serious that the Combination Room, staircase to the Combination Room and ground floor foyer ought to be evacuated immediately, other than for security purposes. The matters giving rise to the risk were said to include the unsatisfactory means of escape from the Combination Room and lack of management control within the area occupied by the students. Over that weekend the University was in consultation with the police regarding whether and how the requirements of the order could be safely implemented. When the occupation was ended and the University took management control of the UCR, the prohibition notice was lifted.
The University's position
Cambridge is committed to freedom of speech and the right of peaceful protest. We also have a duty of care for both students and staff, and these factors were continually measured and balanced in the University's response. For as long as the occupation remained peaceful, we tolerated the inconvenience of the closure of the UCR and Senate-House Yard. Throughout the occupation, we did not seek to remove banners, or to prevent the occupiers from making their point.
The occupiers assert that the protest was peaceful and non-violent. This has not been entirely the case. The occupation followed 48 hours after the attempt by demonstrators to gain forcible entry to the Old Schools from Senate-House Yard on Wednesday 24 November. The actions of occupiers and demonstrators thereafter included intimidation of staff and students; breaking a window in the East Room staircase causing staff to be evacuated from the area; banging threateningly on office doors and windows, again causing evacuation. It was necessary, on 1 December, for Human Resources Division staff physically to hold a door closed while protesters banged against it.
The occupiers risked injury to themselves and to others. Among the reported incidents which caused the most concern to University authorities, police and fire service officers were: numbers in the Combination Room were unregulated; children participated in the protests and some minors were allowed to stay in the Room overnight; fire doors were padlocked shut; on Friday 3 December the blockade trapped staff inside the building in addition to preventing entry, and two occupiers outside the vehicle entrance padlocked themselves by their necks to stepladders positioned on a sloping surface.
The occupiers also claimed that they sought 'open dialogue', and condemned the lack of negotiation on the grounds that the University is a place of debate. The conditions they imposed did not allow for open dialogue or debate. Rather, they issued a set of 'demands' with an ultimatum. We can not engage, under threat, with members of the University breaking University regulations and the law of the land, and we did not do so. On Thursday, I conveyed to the occupiers that once their illegal occupation was at an end, I would meet a delegation, receive their demands, and put those demands to the University Council at the scheduled meeting on 6 December. No response was received, except Friday's action to deny entry to the Old Schools.
On the morning of Monday 6 December the sit-in was brought to an end by the occupiers. Protestors demonstrated outside the University Council meeting scheduled for that morning. The occupation being at an end, I renewed my offer to meet a delegation of University of Cambridge students from the occupation, and a meeting with three such students took place the following morning.
The impact on the University
The direct costs so far of the occupation have exceeded 50,000 pounds, and indirect costs, which are currently being estimated, are likely to be far in excess of that sum. The financial impact, let alone the consequences for individual staff and students, will be significant.
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