A ‘free university’ set up by squatters over the summer has found a new home after being evicted from their previous building.
The self-titled ‘Pleb’s College’ was set up in August in an abandoned factory off Cowley Road with the aim of creating a space where anyone could go for free to participate in or lead workshops, discussions, activities or lessons. It also provided an area for people to socialise and enjoy occasional free meals.
Despite getting a considerable amount of support from the local community, the group was evicted by the owners of the building on the September 6th and was homeless until last Thursday when they announced on their blog that they had found a new home in an abandoned office building on Union Street in Cowley.
There are currently around six people living in the building including some of the main organisers of the project. They told Cherwell that they became aware that the property had been empty for some months and found that they could get in without any criminal damage. Current law which states that if a building is abandoned, the squatters get in without breaking and entering, and they advertise their presence with appropriate signs then it is simply a civic matter between the owners and the squatters rather than an issue for the Police. Pleb’s College therefore claims legal status as legitimate squatters.
However, not everyone agrees that this should be possible and there has been pressure on the government to criminalise squatting.
Christopher Pruijsen, a second-year PPE-ist from Univ, commented, ‘They should be prosecuted, in the civil court. But law should be reformed and squatters should be legally forced to pay the going market rental rate for every day they squat in any property’.
Ben Hudson from Regent’s Park takes a more sympathetic view to the dquatter’s mission: ‘We’re not talking about what the Daily Mail calls squatting, when someone pops out to get some milk and a family of eighteen gypsies move in and drink their Cava. By making use of empty buildings, squatters such as those staying at Pleb’s College can create something important for the community.”
Nicola Sugden, the co-chair of the Labour Club, agreed with Hudson and added, “squatting is generally a sign that the state has failed to provide people with the shelter and/or community space that they need.”
The national campaign group Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) is trying to prevent the government from criminalising squatting and argues that the right to take shelter in abandoned buildings has been enshrined in British Law for over 100 years. They add that criminalising squatters would be very detrimental to the community particularly given that over 40 percent of people currently squatting suffer from mental health issues.
‘Pleb’s College’ is intended to be both a shelter for homeless or vulnerable people and a provider of education, discussion and skill-sharing in the community. Some of the organisers involved are graduates of Oxford University but, when asked how he felt about the University, one commented, “it is somewhere of privilege, elitism and hierarchy that is not open to everyone especially with the increase in fees.” He suggested that this was part of his motivation to open a space where “everyone can teach and everyone can learn.”
The Pleb’s college hosts a huge variety of events to which anyone can turn up and take part and also welcomes anyone who would like to start up their own activity. The next ‘free university’ session will be this Saturday.