What began as a casual discussion over breakfast in the student pub turned into something that took even those at the top by surprise. It would be fair to say that Royal Holloway, which is part of the University of London, is not known for its political activism, something which makes the events of 16-20 March even more incredible.
At 12pm on a chilly Friday, a group of students gathered outside the university’s infamous ‘Founder’s Building’ and began to make their way towards Principal Paul Layzell’s office. Campus security had been on high alert due to staff protests over proposed pension changes but had disbanded after the last of the picketers had packed up and left, thus providing the students with their opportunity. Led by two students from the university Labour Society, the protesters stormed the corridor leading to the Principal’s office and demanded to see him. After initial confusion, Mr Layzell finally emerged to greet the group of angry students. Their demands were clear: support the aims of the UCU strike and apologise to staff for the hard-line approach to the strike taken by Royal Holloway management.
These demands had been agreed on with the Royal Holloway (RHUL) branch of the UCU and it is important to note that the student protesters took this action on behalf of, and with the support of their lecturers. Principal Layzell admitted staff were ‘deserving of an apology’ and pledged to deliver a written statement. In spite of initial conflict over the legality of their occupation, students were to remain outside the Principal’s office for the next 120 hours until they were satisfied with the promised statement.
Over the next five days, the students, who became known by the hashtag #RHOccupy, became increasingly close and determined in their mission. Naturally, living under 24/7 security supervision with limited sleep or opportunities to see the outside world took its toll on the mental wellbeing of the students. A 120 hour sit-in is no mean feat and had it not been for the support and solidarity shown both on and offline by staff and fellow students, the atmosphere in the occupation could have been very different. As it was, in spite of all the challenges, the students remained relatively upbeat and kept spirits up by playing games and eating treats donated by generous staff members.
As one would expect, there were clashes between the student occupiers and the university management. Relations between the students and the security watching over them remained cordial but the interactions between the protesters and those at the top of Royal Holloway were not always as friendly. The university’s Chief Operating Officer, David Ashton, came in constant conflict with the students. A particular incident took place on the Saturday when four of the occupying students decided to make a bigger impact and went to the university library to silently hold up placards with slogans in support of their lecturers. This was met with hostility from Mr Ashton, who directed his frustration towards the two female students, Maliha Reza and myself.
After claiming he needed to ‘reflect’ on the situation, Ashton eventually decided to ban the four students from re-entering the occupation and in so doing destroyed the relationship between students and management. The group had previously negotiated a list of allowed occupiers and in singling out the four ‘banned’ students, Ashton effectively ripped up any freedom of movement agreement, much to the anger of students with some being left in tears at the way they had been treated and spoken to. The occupiers took to social media to express their dismay, with many finding it ironic that students had been punished for protesting in a building named after suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison. Nevertheless, the students persisted and those forbidden from re-entering the occupation either managed to sneak their way back in or organised independent protests, which gathered support from many other students.
Early on the Tuesday morning, the students were finally presented with the promised written statement from the Principal in the form of a letter both to staff members and to the UUK, the self-proclaimed representative organisation for the UK's universities. The letter did indeed address all of the student protestors’ concerns and it would be no lie to say that the group were overwhelmed by their success. Not only had they achieved a written confirmation of Principal Layzell’s backing of the aims of the UCU strike but also an apology to staff, something that they could never have imagined in their wildest dreams. They took to social media site Twitter to express their joy with one of the organisers of the occupation, Maliha Reza tweeting ‘our demands have been met… we’ve made history’.
The jubilant feeling was echoed by staff who gathered to welcome the occupying students as they left the building. And with that, at 12pm exactly five days after it had begun, it was over. As the students walked out to cheers from staff and students, emotions ran high. We had succeeded.