The president of the lecturers’ union UCU, Alan Whitaker, has signed a letter supporting protesters who attacked the Conservative party HQ last week.
Following the protests on 10 November in London against government proposals to raise university tuition fees, fifty eight people are known to have been arrested, including at least one Oxford University student.
In the statement, signed by twenty four members of the UCU’s national executive, called for academics to “stand with those students who were arrested”.
This comes after a man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder for throwing a fire extinguisher of the top of Millbank Tower in last week’s protests.
The action met with widespread condemnation from protesters inside Millbank, and shortly after the extinguisher was thrown, a chant went up of “Stop throwing shit!”
Frances Foley, a Philosophy and German student at Wadham, who had been inside Millbank, described how the action was “met with fury” from the crowd below, and how it prompted chanting “more deafening than any of the other slogans of the afternoon.” She said the moment was “shocking, but wholly unrepresentative of the tactics of the demonstrators”.
However, the statement signed by Whitaker, sub-titled “Great Start and No to Victimisations”, called for university staff to “rally behind all who were arrested for fighting to defend their education”.
This is at odds with the UCU’s official line, who had previously condemned the violence as “totally unacceptable”. When asked whether the union’s line had changed in light of its President’s support for the statement, the UCU press officer confirmed that it had not.
He stated that Whitaker had been “speaking in a personal capacity” and was “not endorsed by the union”.
He continued that the UCU “did not condone intimidation, violence, or damage of property.”
However, he did not believe that the conflict of views was an issue for the President. He said that “differences of opinion were not uncommon,” and that “we wouldn’t sack someone for their personal opinion, when the whole point [of UCU] was to fight to defend academics and free speech.”
Yet, the statement signed by the UCU president refused to side with those “who condemn the violence against windows and property but will not condemn or even name the long-term violence of cuts that will scar the lives of hundreds of thousands by denying them access to the education of their choice”.
Unions including the UCU have been criticised for their refusal to support the protesters. In a statement last week, lecturers at Goldsmiths distanced themselves from UCU, condemning “the divisive and, in our view, counter productive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ.”
The lecturers at Goldsmiths continued that “the real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in higher education funding are implemented.”
The government condemned the statement released by the Goldsmiths’ lecturers, saying “Praising violence over peaceful protest is frankly irresponsible.”
However, a feeling that the direct action of protesters at Millbank was justified has been echoed by students at the protest.
Foley argued that “what the Tories are planning for this country renders a few broken windows and a couple of rootless geraniums insignificant to the point of absurdity.”