SATURDAY 3 MARCH
There was discontent – that much was clear. The ongoing UCU strike has been a polarising one, but the anger here was not at the lecturers. Instead, they had two targets: a Students’ Guild that in their eyes was incapable of supporting academics with any substance and, of course, the University of Exeter.
Outside, the weather was cold, and the last remnants of a storm that had brought the city to a grinding halt had yet to disappear. Inside, however, the perhaps too cosy surrounds allowed a group of students to talk fairly loudly with confidence, instead of the hushed whisper that would be expected.
They were going to hit Northcote House.
Now, of course, it wasn’t clear exactly how that would happen. Exeter often gains a reputation as an apolitical university, not attracted to the activism that engulfs many over campuses across the country. It was occupations around the country, however, that gave them confidence to take on a target as colossal as the University’s main administrative building. Still, the question remained: how, and when?
Council was postulated as a possibility, until they realised that it was too far off for the next one. Instead, they took their swipe directly at the top, as the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group (VCEG) was set to meet that next Monday morning. Their plan? A series of human chains, blocking entry to the building and causing disruption.
With their ideas in place, they retreated home.
MONDAY 5 MARCH, 8:00AM
It hadn’t taken long for the plans to start to fall apart. Group chats had been set up, and before long, questions on their lack of numbers was being thrown around. Ultimately, an agreement was made to decide on a new plan when the protesters assembled at the picket line.
That Monday morning was a cold one, and below the ominously grey skies the earliest of the picketers were gratefully collecting coffees from the stall provided by student volunteers. While talk of “go home and sleep, support your lecturers!” may have been thrown around on the pavement, a different kind of talk was happening on the grassy area just behind it.
There just weren’t the numbers, they agreed. Blocking off both main entrances to Northcote House just wasn’t possible. More direct action was needed. Some suggested a public option – such as bursting into the main reception and banging pots and pans. This was soon dismissed as not disruptive enough. Instead, they decided, they had to target the meeting directly. To do so? Well, they’d just have to go in.
In all honesty, there wasn’t that much hope that they’d get in. A group of 15 students, two of which were journalists, headed around the back of the Forum.
I asked one of them how long they expected to last. “I think we’ll be out again in two or three hours,” they told me. “I’ll be happy if we last for four or five.”
Soon, the group was walking up past Devonshire House. They had their target in sight: a fire exit, right next to the Council chamber. They knew that the room they sought, the John Usher meeting room, was somewhere near there, but weren’t entirely sure. They raced up the stairs, and by some fluke found their way straight into the heart of the building. Just a few steps away, with the name right next to the door, was the room they sought.
Suddenly, pictures were being taken, and a banner unfurled: “Support our strikers, Steve”. Under a strict embargo, I waited, thumbs poised to send out the tweet. It wasn’t until a staff member approached that I was able to do so. One of her first questions was one that would come up many times that morning, to some surprise at every occasion: “how did you get in here?”
“The door was open.”
9:00AM – THE OCCUPATION BEGINS
The euphoria had hit. Somehow, it had all gone to plan, and they were in. As though an unlocked fire escape with a handle on the outside hadn’t been blessing enough, the room itself was unlocked too.
Soon, they were sitting around the table. “This is the real VCEG,” one exclaimed. Another, putting their feet up on the table, bellowed: “I’m the real Vice-Chancellor.”
Their request on entering had been a simple one: speak to Sir Steve himself. However, he was out of the country, so instead they had to make do with a visit from Janice Kay, the Provost, and Mike Shore-Nye, the Registrar.
In scenes that shouldn’t have come as any surprise, there was no real chance of the parties seeing eye-to-eye. The shock that this had even happened seemed to have caught everybody, and in the end, the protesters didn’t even make a formal demand. They only did so shortly afterwards, when Richard Heath, Head of University Security, returned to the room: they wanted a statement, unequivocal in nature, that either supported or condemned the strike action.
1:00PM – 4 HOURS IN
The University still hadn’t locked the fire exit. Things were going well – students coming and going and there was a real buzz around the place. Someone had brought an accordion in, and the music blew out into the corridor and throughout the building. Even some Sabbs had made an appearance, bringing goodwill from the Guild and information from the Advice Unit.
An ITV journalist had been in touch earlier in the morning, wondering if there was any chance of a video. Immediately, a spokesperson had been chosen for their “propaganda video”, and shortly afterwards an ominous looking video, in which ocuppiers stood in front of their banner, was sent out.
Yet amongst all the high spirits, something was about to change.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Of course the University would want to stop the access from that fire exit. The timing, however, was not good. Several protesters were stuck outside.
The Head of Security was clear: the door was locked from the outside, and was not in use for the occupation anymore. Instead, they would have to rely on the windows for food – and without climbing, that gave them a few centimetres of space to work with. The reaction was not happy:
We're still occupying Northcote house, but we've been told by @UoE_Security that they're actively stopping anyone else from joining us. That includes people with food. The message is clear: leave or be starved out.@occupation_hub
— Exeter Students 4 UCU Strike (@ExeStudentsUCU) March 5, 2018
Still, the door was unattended. It took a while to attempt it – there were fears that it might be alarmed – but it wasn’t. Several people managed to get back in, until the University caught on and placed a guard on the door.
That wasn’t the only issue they faced from security that afternoon. A request to take down their one banner, on account of it containing the word “fucking”, was promptly denied.
“Why does it need to come down?”
“Health and safety”
“How is that a health and safety problem?”
“Well, I’m not going to argue with you.”
This would be the source of endless laughter later on – if the University can’t make them take down a simple banner, then what power do they really have?
Oh, and the occupiers were promptly informed that the cameras in their room were being switched on. Why?
“For your safety and security.”
5:30PM – 8 1/2 HOURS IN
The effect of time was starting to play its part. Now eight and a half hours in to a “four or five hour” occupation, people were tired, and the fact that most of the food available was some form of crisp didn’t help to alleviate hunger.
Things became even more dire as one student, who had popped outside of the door to refill his water bottle, was refused reentry into the occupation. A tense situation developed, and a group gathered around the security guards to protest their case. Meanwhile, down the staircase behind them came Janice Kay, on her way home for the night.
“Do you have anything to say to us, Janice?”
“No words from the University?”
The Provost answered their question with a glare, strong enough to penetrate the doors seperating her from her questioners, and burrow its way deep into their souls. Words weren’t necessary.
Resigning to the fact that their comrade would not be reentering, instead they took what comfort they could from their instruments. And for that night, they put on a show better than anything Northcote House had seen before.
— Exeposé News (@ExeposeNews) March 5, 2018
11:00PM – 14 HOURS IN
For those of you who have never been near the Northcote House meeting rooms, you won’t have seen the timetables displayed outside of their doors. Changed every day, they display a full list of each meeting taking place there. Perhaps with the University expecting the occupation to fizzle out, they sent someone down to change the John Usher room’s timetable. It didn’t last long.
By this point, it was essentially clear. There was no real hope of ending the dispute within a day, and the inevitability of a night on a hard floor was definitive.
But before that, they had just one thing left to do. Exeter was far from the only University to face occupation that day. Across the country, several others – Bristol, Bath, Leicester, UCL – were all doing the same. Now was a time for consolidation, for doubling down their efforts and reaching out to friends from afar.
With that, the John Usher room screen was used for a conference call like none that it had seen before. Messages of solidarity, discussions of tactics and an expression of hope were shared via Skype in such a way that made it impossible not to feel lifted.
From there, some (such as myself) pulled up a pillow – as kindly donated by Labour students – and drifted off to a restless night’s sleep, others went out into the corridor to play music and chat to the staff, but there was one thing that they all had in common.
They were not alone in their fight.
TUESDAY 6 MARCH
7:30AM, 22 1/2 hours in
“RISE AND SHINE.”
The University’s Head of Security had, by all admission, not been the favourite person in the eyes of the occupiers, but his harsh tones as he loudly woke the sleeping protesters didn’t really do him any favours.
Outside, arguments were ongoing with various management staff. One tried to claim that the occupiers were blocking access and disrupting the cleaners. “That’s nonsense,” one replied. “One cleaner spoke to us as she came in and said it was lovely to hear music out here.” Management weren’t impressed, yet again, were powerless to do anything. They didn’t notice the moving of pictures outside (“We put Janice’s picture next to our room – she will protect us.”)
Again, Mike Shore-Nye came downstairs to address them. He spoke of the issues they thought were facing the pension scheme, and the occupiers told him why they thought he was wrong. Again, in a move surprising to nobody, this changed nothing.
And so a new day began – with the occupation remaining in full swing.
10:00AM – 25 hours in
They’d been plotting this for some time.
The Professional Services Leadership Team (PSLT) was meeting in the University’s Council chamber, just past the fire escape. If they could just distract the security on that door for long enough, they could either disrupt the meeting, or they could let in more occupiers. In a perfect world, they’d do both.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make at all. The guard on that door had been pleasant to the occupiers, and many felt guilty about trying to deceive him. After all, they contended, their struggle was on behalf of workers like him – he was not the enemy, the University’s management were. However, needs must, and they settled on a plan.
Out into the corridor, went the protesters with their pots and pans, making as much noise as possible. It was a simple plan – draw the guard off of his post, sneak in behind towards the meeting, and while that serves as a distraction, crack open the fire escape and let many more people in. The guard, however, did not move. Instead, he made his case for them to stop, and offered to try and allow two members of the group to address PSLT. The group agreed immediately, and off he went to ask for PSLT’s permission.
That was where the opening came about. The occupiers raced for the fire escape, while their counterparts outside did the same. Unfortunately, those outside were held up following some miscommunication. By the time they arrived, only one person from outside had managed to enter. The big coup, intended to tip the balance, had essentially failed.
Heading back towards the John Usher room, the occupiers bumped into the Head of Security. He stared the newcomer up and down, with a confused expression on his face.
“How did you get back inside?”
5:00PM – 32 hours in
It had all gone quiet for some time,. Food continued to arrive, not least now because security were willingly bringing deliveries from reception. Making themselves cosy, they acquired a toaster in addition to the kettle already there.
Earlier, they had heckled PSLT members as they left their meeting. “Sir Keith [Sheffield Vice-Chancellor] is on the picket line – you have no excuse,” one of the occupiers pointed out. This also marked a change in their demands. No longer was a statement enough – now, it had to support the UCU.
Since then, it had been relaxing, if a little long.. They were waiting, biding their time until the chance for a next big offensive.
That chance was to come that evening.
A group of students who had originally been a part of the occupation had organised a rally in its support. Around 50 people marched from the Forum to the Northcote House car park, as the occupiers basked in glory, screaming slogans out from the windows to the people below.
When they arrived at the car park, out came the megaphone. Barrie Cooper, the president of UCU’s Exeter branch, addressed those in attendance, calling for solidarity as the dispute pushes on. Then, the speeches moved inside. Those who had been trapped in an administrative building for over a day spoke out, telling the crowds of their struggle and their purpose. They led them in chants, making their message heard.
Then, the opportunity came.
50 people is a very large crowd, and there is power in numbers. The plan? To storm the building, and get more people inside. Soon, they’d found a way into the nearest lobby, and jumped at their chance. The occupation was spreading.
Inside, things were getting tense. Estate Patrol was mobilising, as they attempted to get a grip on the situation. The doors leading to the fire escape were locked shut, as protesters screamed at the management that they were breaking the law.
Outside, the Registrar had had enough. He came outside to address the gathered rally, accusing them of intimidating staff and telling them that they weren’t helping anybody.
Watching his speech back later, the occupiers found some humour. A flustered Mike turns to the occupation site, screaming: “what are you doing banging the window?”
The only response, which was chanted back?
“One solution – revolution!”
6:30PM – 33 1/2 HOURS IN
The second occupation had been established, just the other side of the main staircase.
The Registrar, along with the Head of Security, addressed both groups. “Who are you?” one of them asked of an occupier.
“I’m new,” he replied, having just climbed in through a window.
The conversations began fairly hostile, before calming down again and returning to their previous stalemate. All in all, there was nothing either side expected to gain.
And that’s where the bigger conversation started. Those in the lobby – all seven of them – had no access to water, or to toilets. The response from the University was that if they needed either, they could leave. For obvious reasons, that wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, the threat came out. If the University was going to deny them access to the toilet, they would urinate into bottles instead.
I had a call from the Guild’s VP Activities, asking me what the situation was on the ground. The Guild were lobbying at that stage, fighting into the night for the new occupiers. Before long, they’d been given limited toilet access.
9:00PM – 36 HOURS IN
My time in Northcote House had come to an end. After a few words with Jane Chafer, the University’s Director of Communications and Marketing, most of them began to settle in for another night. Those in the lobby refused an offer to join the main occupation, mostly because they preferred the strategic advantage that that offered them.
I left John Usher to a round of applause, as they had also given to those who left before me. In the lobby, those who remained gave embraces on my exit, before sinking back into their seats to continue their protest.
I left after 36 hours, having spend a day and a half inside Northcote House. Days later, their protest goes on.