Academic staff suspended at Middlesex University

Three philosophers have been banned from entering university premises or contacting students.

The ongoing dispute over the future of Middlesex University's highly regarded philosophy department was ratcheted up a notch on Friday, when students and three members of the academic staff -- Professors Peter Osborne, Peter Hallward and Christian Kerslake -- were suspended from the university, pending an investigation into their role in a second occupation at the university's Trent Park campus.

Protesters entered campus buildings on Thursday 20 May and remained in the university library from 6.45pm until 8am the following morning, in a sit-in that took place six days after a previous occupation ended following the granting of a high court injunction.

According to the Save Middlesex Philosophy blog, university management responded on Thursday by locking the doors of the main campus building and contacting the police, but when officers arrived it was decided that the injunction obtained by the university on 14 May did not apply to the sit-in, and protesters were permitted to stay.

However, the university today alleged that a second group of protesters "forcibly entered the building" during the evening, thereby breaching the injunction. In a statement released to the New Statesman today, a university spokesperson said:

The university has to intervene when protest is illegal or puts the health and safety of staff at risk. On Thursday 20 May, an occupation of the library at Trent Park occurred when a group of individuals refused to leave the building, and a further group forcibly entered the building, in breach of a High Court injunction granted to the university on 14 May. The previous occupation at Trent Park resulted in assaults and injuries to members of staff who were legitimately trying to safeguard the staff and students who were working in the buildings.

The fight to save Middlesex's philosophy department is one front in a wider struggle, as university administrations find themselves forced to make substantial cuts after the government reduced the higher education budget by half a billion pounds.

The decision to suspend Osborne, Hallward and Kerslake from their posts has triggered a flurry of letters of condemnation from fellow academics.

In a letter dated 21 May, Graham Harman, associate professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, wrote:

With yesterday's suspensions of Professors Hallward [and] Osborne, and several students, I fear we are seeing a merely vindictive gesture that threatens genuine long-term damage to your institution. We have heard of "outlaw nations", but never of "outlaw universities". Yet the possible danger now arises of Middlesex becoming just such a pariah. Your administrators did nothing yesterday but turn Hallward and Osborne into international martyrs. Even if all ethics and justice were taken out of the picture, the suspensions are a clumsy overreaction in purely realpolitik terms. Please: it is not too late for cooler heads to prevail.

John Protevi, professor of French studies at Louisiana State University, also wrote to the governing body, claiming that administrators were "at risk of permanently besmirching the reputation of your university" and that "an organised boycott is a real possibility at this point".

Asked how management had come to the decision to close the philosophy department at Middlesex, despite its record of achievement, the university's spokesperson said: "The university consulted at length with the staff involved for six months prior to making its decision.

"Members of the executive also conducted several meetings with philosophy staff after the decision had been made."

You can follow the campaign to save Middlesex's philosophy department by clicking here.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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