This is a piece I wrote for the Guardian today about the two and a half year suspension of Owen Holland from the University of Cambridge. It’s a complete outrage.
After you’ve read it please SIGN and SHARE our general petition http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/support-suspended-cambridge-university-student/ and if you have access to Raven sign our Cambridge petition http://www.cusu.cam.ac.uk/campaigns/thisisnotjustice/petition/
Last November I, along with students and staff at Cambridge University, took part in a protest against David Willetts, the minister for universities and science. He had been invited to speak as part of a series on The Idea of the University, delivered by senior members of management, celebrity dons and a government minister. No students, low-paid staff or members of the Cambridge community were invited to voice their ideas. All the speakers had degrees, most had more than one, and most, if not, all were from Oxbridge. As if this blindness to privilege wasn’t enough, the government minister speaking also happened to be responsible for the wholesale demolition of public higher education in the UK, his policies set to damage the lives of millions over the coming years.
During this protest we, students and staff, collectively recited a text since labelled variously as a speech, an epistle or a poem. In purposefully flowery prose we told Willetts “You are not a welcome guest because you come with a knife concealed beneath your cloak." In reference to the 30 November strike we maintained that "we are not consumers; we are students – and we will stand with our teachers on their picket lines". Eventually Willetts chose to leave the building without delivering his speech. Our protest had been entirely peaceful, and was only the latest in a long history of such interventions at Cambridge.
Then the university advocate decided to pursue a disciplinary case against one student. Singled out among a group of more than 60 for no recognisable reason, he has been tried by the court of discipline, a court only nominally independent from the university itself. This student has now been “rusticated” – or suspended from his studies – for the next seven terms. That amounts to two and a half years, nearly as long as his whole degree was expected to take. Two and a half years for a peaceful protest that has not broken any laws, has harmed nobody and has only served to highlight the dangers that British universities today face from government cuts.
To illustrate the absurdity of this decision, it is worth remembering that the university advocate herself had only asked for a single term’s suspension as a maximum penalty. It is impossible to know what was behind the court’s decision, but no doubt it intended to make an example of this student, so next time people were that bit more afraid to step out of line. The university is trying to defend freedom of speech by silencing dissent.
It is trying to protect freedom of inquiry by destroying a young man’s academic career. This is not only intellectually a hypocritical position to take, but will do permanent and material damage to the future of freedom of conscience at Cambridge. Fortunately, when you’re invited to a kangaroo court you go prepared to box. Others along with myself have signed a “Spartacus” letter demanding that we too be charged with the same offence. Already an online petition has garnered over 2,000 signatures, another one circulated among students and staff has received over 1,000 signatures. Alumni are sending letters of complaint and refusing to donate to the university until it rescinds this decision. A protest planned today will be attended by hundreds of students.
Yet amid all this controversy it would be easy to forget the simple fact that no punishment would be appropriate for a student exercising their right to peaceful protest. This is not and should never be a crime – however petty – nor should we ever allow it to be treated as such.