The 'Angela Davis Building's' radical libraryCambridge Defend Education

Looking down the stairwell of “Solidarity College”, the change from a few days ago is dramatic. Homemade posters and flags hang from the bannisters. Toilets have been made gender neutral and an office on the top floor has been turned into a welfare drop-in. Lecture rooms previously used for Economics now house workshops on mobilisation and history lessons on prior occupations.

On Tuesday morning (22/02) at around 8:15 students from Cambridge Defend Education walked into the lecture block and barricaded themselves in. The occupation of Block A at the Sidgwick Site – nicknamed “Solidarity College” in reference to the title of Old School’s occupation in 2020 – has been planned loosely since last December’s strikes. The latest round, which conclude this Wednesday (2/3), brought forward the occupation.

The activists want the University to commit to negotiating a comprehensive recognition agreement with the UCU that includes all categories of staff and improve the working conditions of college supervisors. They say they won’t leave until the University meets their demands.

Despite the chains on the door, the occupation is open for anyone to join. Though I’m met with an initially frosty reception when I say I’m from Varsity, the gatekeepers agree to let me have a look around.

I’m told that the occupation has a strict Covid-19 policy – you’ll need a negative LFT to get in and must wear a mask in any communal space. Inside this doesn’t seem to be enforced: nobody checked my test and masks were worn sparingly. About fifteen undergrads and postgrads milled about in the lobby, chatting and pecking at the snack bar. Sympathetic academics have apparently been passing through to bring food; occupiers tell me that they’ve been eating “incredibly well”.

On the right when you enter are the rules for the building. No alcohol and drugs, Covid testing on entry and a cleaning system that everyone participates in; though there might have been some abstentions on Friday afternoon.

Their collective purpose is to make the occupation “safe” for anyone. One occupier said that “It’s the best space [they’ve] ever experienced in Cambridge”.

The occupation is allegedly non-hierarchical. Any decision is made by consensus at the daily open meeting. Working groups have been allocated to look at certain areas like fire safety, welfare and workshops. One of the occupiers said they’re working “actively against systems of oppression.”

A carefully planned map of the building was described to me before I arrived. However, in practice it’s a lot more relaxed. The faintly sweet smelling lecture halls on each floor are indiscriminately used for workshops, down time or studying, though when I arrive only a couple are doing degree work. In several of the rooms, sleeping bags are strewn across the floor and lights are dimmed. I’m told that the block has been recently refurbished and it’s “actually pretty comfortable.” There’s also underfloor heating.

I catch the end of a workshop on model-making which transitions into “communal writing”. The latter, taught to the student supervisor who in turn had been taught by one of the academics, starts with “free thought” writing before a group examination of “what is possible”. Attendance is low: about six showed up as most are downstairs in the snack room. Set piece events like Sunday’s (27/2) collaboration with the “Queer Get Down” promised higher numbers.

In the background is how long the “Solidarity College” occupation will survive. The University told Varsity that “We support the right to peaceful protest but the occupation of University lecture theatre by a small number of people disrupts access to education for all other students and teaching staff who use those buildings. We are working to minimise disruption to lectures.”


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Asked about this, one occupier told me that “disruption to education is not representative of the real disruption of education when staff are exploited, underpaid and put in precarious positions. This means that students are not given the education they were promised and deserved.”

The occupation is in constant dialogue with the University - representatives of the latter came by on Thursday to check fire safety procedures. I’m not told what the substance of negotiations are but an eviction notice has been served. A hearing will be held on the matter on Thursday 3 March at Cambridge's County Court.

Publicly, “Solidarity College” is defiant. Individually there are doubts. One of the occupiers said they’re not scared of the university and won’t leave until the demands of the occupation are met. Another says they’re concerned it might be over within a week.

For now, among their lectures, workshops and parties, the occupation lives on. While the strikes will finish this week, students don’t seem to be leaving “Solidarity College” anytime soon.