Opinion divided as students react to the occupation of the Arts Tower

It is set to remain closed until Saturday evening

At 6:30am on Wednesday, before most of us were awake, activists from The Free University of Sheffield, amongst other groups, occupied and blockaded The Arts Tower as part of the ongoing UCU strike action.

Previously, students were still able to access all university buildings, although were urged not to cross picket lines by protesters.

The Free University of Sheffield have issued a long list of demands concerning the pensions dispute at the heart of the strike.

They are also demanding a maximum pay ratio, drug safety staff, greater mental health support, protections for international students, and "a freeze to extortionate rent in university accommodation".

The Tab understands that, unless these demands are met, protesters plan to stay in The Arts Tower until Saturday.

*** SHEFFIELD STUDENTS OCCUPY THE ARTS TOWER ***On the morning of Wednesday 14th March at approximately 6:30am we, a…

Posted by Sheffield student-worker solidarity on Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Last week, our research found that 87.5 per cent of respondents to our survey supported the strike. Many are actively supporting their striking lecturers, who stand to lose thousands of pounds each year from proposed changes.

Edward Williamson, from The Free University of Sheffield, told The Tab:

"We're occupying because we've been given no other choice, with management unwilling to negotiate seriously and offer an agreement that protects staff pensions and does not punish them for defending their retirements.

"As students supporting our lecturers, we believe their working conditions are our learning conditions.

"We do not take this lightly, it is not intended as a publicity stunt and we are fully aware of the effect it is having on students, particularly in the school of architecture.

"We will aim to use our leverage to make positive changes for students, such as using the millions of pounds of unpaid wages during the strike to properly fund our university services that all students, especially the most vulnerable, need."

The Tab spoke to a number of students about the occupation to get their thoughts on the matter.

Mohammad A. Bux, a second year dentistry student, told The Tab:

"It's important to remember this decision was an absolute last resort and a necessary escalation, because strikes have not resulted in a fair deal for University staff. Secure pensions have still not been guaranteed – the present proposal just being postpones the injustice for another three years.

"This is not a deal, and if it goes ahead, the exact same protests and strikes will be occurring in 3 years time. While we are standing in full solidarity with striking UCU staff, this is also a protest against the general marketisation of education and the cuts imposed upon it, in the context of extortionate Vice-Chancellor pay and Keith's £425,000 salary.

"The disruption that will be caused to current and prospective students' education from marketisation, cuts and the current pensions dispute far outweighs the minor disruption from The Arts Tower being shut down for a few days.

"Students affected should direct anger at the University and UUK, they have the power and resources to settle this dispute. It's difficult to blame our amazing staff who are being robbed by the fat cat bosses."

Students involved in the blockade also insisted on social media that they have blocked no fire exits, and are trying to let students and staff in to access materials they need, saying security are the ones preventing this.

One student anonymously described what they saw as disregard shown by lecturers and those in the occupation towards students is "appalling."

Another student, who did not wish to be named, said:

"Over the last few years we've had to endure lots of occupations by the collection of tiresome embarrassments who make up Free Uni. As well as being totally impotent, they've also got no new ideas.

"The one saving grace is that it keeps them out of our sights for a few joyous days, while the grown ups try and resolve this strike to save our lecturers' pensions."

Third year politics student Ben Dugher described lecturers as "perfectly entitled to strike", but feels "it's a great shame" the Students' Union is supporting strikers rather than mitigating the impact of strikes.

"I also think that the occupation of The Arts Tower by a small number of far left nutters is both inconsiderate to students who need to use the building and frankly 'sad' in the Trumpian sense of the word."

After the nationwide rejection of the draft proposals that would have ended the strikes, but still made lecturers significantly worse off, there is no sign of the strikes ending soon.

For the foreseeable future, then, it looks like the divides in opinion, and disruption to education, both at The University of Sheffield and nationwide, will continue.

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