Liam Turbett reports on a victorious conclusion to Glasgow’s seven-month university occupation
After over 200 days in occupation, the Free Hetherington occupation at Glasgow University finally ended on Wednesday 31st August. The decision to leave followed direct negotiations with senior management, who allowed the occupiers to declare victory by handing over several major concessions.
As previously reported in The Commune, the Free Hetherington was established in early February, when students and anti-cuts activists from across Glasgow took over a disused post-graduate social space at the heart of the Glasgow University campus, transforminglanguage teaching, anthropology and the entire department of adult education entirely.
Senior management’s initial approach of ignoring the occupation and hoping it would falter away failed, and now famously, on 22nd March an attempt was made to end it by force. With dozens of police, alongside the dog unit, the force helicopter and university security charging in to drag out the 15 or so occupants, around 500 students and supporters rapidly gathered outside. Hundreds then marched on the historic administrative centre of the university, and forced their way into the University Senate, which was held for the rest of the day. By midnight, management had handed the Hetherington building back, in exchange for the occupiers leaving the Senate rooms. In doing so, they handed legitimacy to the occupation, strong-arming them into negotiations, and the day’s events reaffirmed the level of support that the anti-cuts movement at the university could draw on.
But the 22nd March victory is just one segment of the Hetherington’s success, which managed to politicise (and polarise) the university body, and play a key role in organising the largest demo in Glasgow Uni history, which saw upwards of 2000 staff and students take to the streets against course cuts. Importantly, the Hetherington gave a constant physical presence to the anti-cuts movement, and became vital in drawing in and radicalising new layers of young people. During the UCU lecturers’ union’s strike days in March, and the PCS civil servants’ union’s strike in June, the occupation it into a vibrant radical social and educational space, as well as a hub of anti-cuts activity. The timing of the occupation would prove key, coming just a week before £20m cuts plans were leaked, which looked set to see the scrapping of nursing, became an important base for organising student solidarity, and through its kitchen and bar facilities, was able to help in providing hot drinks and food to picket lines across the city.
The days following the failed eviction attempt saw the already deeply unpopular university management plunged into crisis, with £270,000-a-year Principal Anton Muscatelli forced into accepting an open meeting, where several hundred students and staff called for his resignation. To compound the situation, the UCU branch at the university then unanimously supported motions condemning the eviction and of no confidence in university management. Alex Salmond even stepped in to condemn Muscatelli.
The agreement to leave the occupation follows guarantees from management that no further course cuts will be made, a concrete promise of a future post-graduate social space, and, importantly, that no disciplinary action will be taken against any students or staff involved with the occupation. Although Slavonic Studies and Liberal Arts at the Dumfries Campus are still set to be cut, this is a drastic reduction on what was first laid out earlier in the year, and there has been a further promise that no compulsory redundancies will be made.For a movement with all too few victories, the importance of this – even in propaganda terms – is highly significant. Being both an end in itself – a radical anti-cuts and social space at the university – and also the means to an end, allowed the occupation to deliver a genuine victory, and build a mass movement at the university in the process.