By Rob McLaren
A group of thirteen students at the University of Stirling have been given eight-week suspensions, for their role in the occupation of a university building during the previous wave of University and College Union (UCU) strikes.
Some of the students involved will also be evicted from their rented accommodation on campus, while others may face expulsion from the university altogether.
The students had occupied the Cottrell building – which houses much of the university’s management, including the offices of the Vice Chancellor and University Secretary – for a two-week period during the strikes in November and December 2019.
One of the students facing suspension, Cian Ireland, said the group’s intentions had been to show support for the demands of the striking lecturers, while also drawing attention to issues impacting students, including what they perceive as the poor quality of housing, and an ongoing mental health crisis.
“They [Stirling University] have two and a half full-time mental health counsellors for 14,000 students,” said Ireland. “It’s massively underfunded, yet the vice chancellor is paid more than the entire budget for mental health counselling. A lot of us involved in the occupation have lost someone in the past year, so it’s a big issue around campus which we wanted to raise awareness of.”
The group, he added, had been notified via e-mail of their punishments at around noon on Wednesday 19 February, the day before the latest round of UCU strikes was set to begin. Several members of the group suggested that this was a deliberate move by the university to suppress political activism by students in support of striking staff members.
“It’s very deliberately trying to stop us from doing anything to support UCU,” says Daniel Deery, who has also been suspended by the university, “but they’ve failed. They’ve shot themselves in the foot – they’ve got a less than brilliant reputation on campus but this has just hammered home that they don’t care about students who disagree with them.”
But Deery says the punishments will not deter the group from joining demonstrations during the current strikes: “We might have to stand outside the gates to protest, but that’s a compromise we’re willing to take.”
The students were first notified of the ongoing disciplinary process during the occupation, and had been attending classes as normal since. According to Deery, the students had attended “positive” disciplinary meetings and were willing to accept responsibility for their actions.
The group, he says, had expected the punishment to be no more than a short suspension or a fine, noting that a different group had previously occupied the university’s Logie building in 2018 and faced no consequences.
In the e-mail sent by the university and viewed by the Strathclyde Telegraph, the students were informed that they had committed two ‘level two’ offences: the first for multiple ‘level one’ offences, and the second for health and safety breaches. According to Stirling University’s Code of Student Discipline, this places the offences in the same category as sexual assault and firearm incidents.
Among the students being disciplined is a sixteen-year-old with existing mental health conditions, whom fellow occupiers said had previously been evicted from halls. The student claimed to have slept overnight in university buildings and said they had joined the occupation partly because it provided a place to sleep.
While suspended, the students are not able to enter campus without permission, preventing them from accessing the Students’ Union or the medical facilities within the campus.
Furthermore, those students who live in rented university accommodation are set to be evicted from their halls, assuming the punishment is upheld. This, Ireland suggests, would leave several members of the group homeless.
“I’m one of the lucky ones, as I’m a second-year so I’ve got private accommodation, but half of us are potentially being evicted,” he says. “We have international students, students from Northern Ireland and Germany, who are potentially being made homeless for an eight-week suspension.”
One of those facing eviction, Dan McPadden, says he is from Ireland so cannot simply return home to stay with family. He would be forced to stay on sofas and in spare rooms for a period of time.
“I’ve got a bag packed ready to head, because we are living in a state where it could happen whenever,” he adds. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful. I had a full-blown panic attack when I opened the e-mail.”
It is also alleged that the students have been forbidden from accessing Canvas – the University of Stirling student portal equivalent to MyPlace – during the suspension, which may leave them unable to access class materials or submit coursework.
Each of the punishments handed out is subject to an appeals process, during which time a University of Stirling spokesperson confirmed no evictions will take place. However, Deery says, if their appeal was to fail this could potentially extend the suspension into the exam period, leaving the students unable to attend exams and thus failing their classes.
A spokesperson for the University of Stirling attributed the suspensions to breaches of fire safety legislation and said: “During the occupation, several fire doors were padlocked. This caused a serious and prolonged breach of fire safety regulations, resulting in a risk to the health and safety of students and staff, including the protestors themselves.”
However, a member of the group, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed the barricades were set up on wooden doors leading to fire exits, and not on the fire exits themselves, adding that members of the group had used the fire doors to enter and exit the building.
The student said the group had initially been told by a Health and Safety Officer to remove only the barricade on the first floor of the building in order to comply with health and safety regulations, to which the group had agreed.
He added that while the group admits committing a health and safety violation, they feel they were misled into believing they were complying with the university’s demands. Jess Reid, a friend of many of the members of the occupation group, created a petition calling on the university to overturn the decision. As of Friday morning, the petition had amassed almost 2,000 signatories.
Reid claimed the petition had achieved broad support across the Stirling campus, and said: “As much as there are students who disagree with UCU, when they see their fellow students being unfairly punished to a severe extent, they realise they have to stick up for each other.”
McPadden said that the university’s actions had been condemned by individuals across the political spectrum, adding: “I never thought I would see the day when a group of young socialists were being given the Tory equivalent of solidarity. It has united people against university management.”
The University of Stirling was also condemned by a number of union leaders, including UCU General Secretary Jo Grady and NUS Scotland President Liam McCabe.
Other public figures, including Strathclyde Student President Matt Crilly and the former Glasgow Labour MP Paul Sweeney, called upon the Scottish Government’s Further Education Minister, Richard Lochhead, to take urgent action on behalf of the students.