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University students occupy campus buildings in support of striking university staff

Both Jessop West and the Hicks Building have been taken over in protest at the closure of the University of Sheffield's renowned Archaeology department.

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The Jessop West building yesterday afternoon.

Uni of Sheffield Rent Strike.

Students at the University of Sheffield have occupied two prominent campus buildings to protest the university's decision to close its Archaeology department.

16 students entered the Jessop West building near the Diamond on Monday afternoon and unfurled banners from the windows reading 'SWIPE LEFT ON WAGE THEFT' and 'ARCHAEOLOGY NOW, WHO NEXT?'

This morning another group took over the Hicks Building next to the Students' Union, describing the controversial decision to close the Archaeology Department as "cultural vandalism".

“This occupation will end when the University of Sheffield – alongside the universities pension scheme and Universities UK – meet the demands of the UCU and reverse the closure of the Archaeology Department,” second-year student Dan, one of the occupiers, told Now Then.

“The higher education system has experienced steady and consistent increased marketisation and commodification, that has made education a mere investment opportunity.”

Both staff and students have mounted a determined campaign to save the Archaeology department, which the university said in December they would close due to a "significant decline" in student enrolments.

In a letter to staff, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Gill Valentine said that the department would close at the end of the 2023-24 academic year and that academics would be moved to the History and Biosciences departments.

Many academics and students see the closure as symbolic of a shift in emphasis away from subjects of social or academic value and towards those of higher commercial value to the university.

The university’s branch of the UCU union have pointed out that the Archaeology department was recently ranked the seventh best in the UK. It said that the way the closure decision was made “ran roughshod over the university's democratic processes.”

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Occupying students in the Hicks Building.

Union members are also angry about moves by university management to separate staff at the School of Languages and Cultures into specialists in either language or culture. The union say this fails to recognise the “fundamentally intertwined nature of language and culture that constitutes the heart of this type of degree all over the world.”

At the same time, UCU members in Sheffield and across the country are taking action over gender and ethnic pay gaps, pensions, the use of casual employment practices like zero-hours contracts, and increasing workloads.

“The teaching conditions of staff have a direct correlation on the learning conditions of students,” said Dan, explaining why students were supporting university staff.

“Universities have created a hostile working environment with wage gaps discriminating against disabled staff, women and staff of colour.”

University of Sheffield staff are striking over ten days from 14 February to 2 March, and Sheffield Hallam University staff for five days from 21 February to 2 March.

Members of the student occupation say they plan to stay in Jessop West and the Hicks Building for at least the duration of the UCU strike.

“There are currently a small number of students occupying the Jessop West and Hicks buildings on the University of Sheffield campus," a spokesperson for the University of Sheffield told Now Then.

"The buildings are closed, and all teaching and other activities scheduled to take place are being moved to alternative locations. Our priority is to minimise disruption and we have been communicating any changes directly to students and staff."

"We are in contact with the students who are occupying the buildings and we hope that the situation is resolved as soon as possible."

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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