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Thursday 31st July 2014, 18:34 BST | Cambridge,UK

Willetts forced from lecture hall by student protest

David Willetts’ speech on the Idea of the University was forcibly cancelled this evening by a group of 25 student protesters

Millie Riley We captured the moment student protesters disrupted David Willets' Talk

David Willetts was forced to leave a University lecture hall tonight after activists disrupted his speech.

As Willetts began to speak, a group of around 30 protesters began reading out a pre-written letter, which has since been uploaded to the CDE website. The letter was addressed to the universities minister, and forced him to resume his seat. The letter stated that the group did not recognise his right to take the platform.

As the protesters shouted from the back of the Lady Mitchell hall, some members of the audience attempted to address them, and to force them to be quiet.

Willetts was set to take part in a lecture series on The Idea of the University at the University of Cambridge, but was eventually forced to leave the building.

Simon Goldhill, who had organized the speech on behalf of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), was then forced to cancel the event entirely.

Currently, around 25 to 30 protesters, many of whom are involved with the Cambridge Defend Education campaign, are still in the lecture hall.

Protesters are still deciding whether they wish remain in the hall overnight or for longer.

The room has been locked, and University has stopped anyone from entering the hall. Students will however be allowed to leave as they wish.

The events inside the hall followed a peaceful 'speak out' outside the hall before the talk, at which a number of students and academics spoke.

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Fellow of Churchill College who has been a vocal opponent of government policy on higher education funding, said tonight: “There is no evidence that the event at Cambridge will foster any meaningful debate or accountable decision making.”

Cambridge Defend Education have since announced that five Cambridge University students sustained injuries from security guards, including bleeding hands from being dragged by their legs across gravel and bruised arms from violent handling.

Richard Brodie, a PhD student at Pembroke College, said: "I felt crushed by the security guards, and couldn't breathe. It's astounding that the University would allow such violence against their students who are protesting to save education in this country."

Faith Taylor, a student at St John's College, said: "Before even asking me to move, security guards grabbed my clothing and arm. I asked them to stop and they ignored me. My arm is still hurting."

CUSU have released an official statement; Gerard Tully said: "David Willetts is the architect of higher education policy which is actively damaging to the quality of education that Cambridge (and other universities) offer and creates an unfair financial barrier to students from the broadest backgrounds aspiring to University.

"It is entirely right that students and academics protest these policies, as over 100 did today before Mr Willetts' talk. Tonight students had the opportunity and choice to hear and question Mr Willetts, in the 800-year old tradition of academic enquiry and freedom of speech that Cambridge has pioneered. Students have now been denied that opportunity, and CUSU cannot support this.

"Freedom of expression is one of the founding principles of University education - no matter how objectionable the views being espoused are. Students believe in this principle and so does CUSU, so we cannot support any protest that violates it - which the disruption of David Willetts' talk tonight clearly did."

However, a research fellow at the Faculty of English has spoken out against Gerard Tully's response to tonight's protest against Universities Minister David Willetts.

Ben Etherington told Varsity: "Gerard Tully's comments concerning the relation between the freedom of expression and the events in Lady Mitchell hall this evening are abstract and poorly thought through.

"The historical significance of this moment has eluded him entirely. A government minister comes to justify the gutting of public higher education and its marketisation: the free expression here is that which attempts to maintain our institution's capacity to nurture and advance critical thinking.

"Now, merely weeks before the implementation of the White Paper, this necessarily takes the form of a political act. He would do well to heed the eloquence of the people's mic."

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