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So long, Free Hetherington: a tribute to the historic occupation at Glasgow University

Already this academic year student activism in Scotland is flourishing again. It owes a huge debt to the historic occupation of Hetherington House. Two students recall the seven-month occupation, which ended last month.
Jonathan Nicholson
28 September 2011

It began in February when the spirit of the student fightback poured into the Free Hetherington. Activism became a way of life: the doors were open to all, communal meals were cooked each night for twenty or thirty, and people worked, slept, and made deep relationships in what has become an iconic Glasgow townhouse. Each of the thousands who passed through left with a different impression, but these photographs give some small flavour of the space and the atmosphere of an occupation that will achieve historic note.

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The exterior of the occupied Hetherington

What I want to urge here is that for most occupiers, the Hetherington was always aimed at outward political purposes. The space had huge creative potential for ‘standard methods’ like banner making, meetings, engaging with strike action, but also for more creative media stunts drawing on resources: the fully equipped commercial kitchen meant food and cakes could be distributed at festivals and in parks, early morning tea was brewed for picketers, new tactics were developed and planned in all night meetings. It was alive with discussion, intellectual exploration, and free education. The library was bursting with esoteric and radical texts; cultural figures and political writers and activists often dropped by; and almost every night a meeting was held by one group or another. So in a broad sense, it became a critical space, where traditional activism was developed with new ideas and ideological engagement.

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New sign for the 'Free Hetherington'

At a time when more democratic management is being considered for Scottish university, students in Scotland have realised their influence. The occupation became a very clear symbol of resistance in a country with new emerging political dimensions, especially after the May eviction that police have now admitted was unlawful. But we were also conscious of being part of a long history of struggle in Glasgow.

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Campaigning in Kelvingrove Park

But the main achievements were real, tangible ones. We fought the austerity measures at Glasgow university and were acknowledged by the media and by academics as an important factor in the decisions to reverse course cuts. And the occupation went far beyond student matters. One of the many results is that students are now working with community groups in struggling areas, fighting the cuts to services such as the Accord disability centre in the city’s East End, and in solidarity with those suffering from the bad priorities of Glasgow City Council in ruthless preparation for the Commonwealth Games.

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Making banners for the June 30 pension reform protest

The political imperative was also the reason it ended. Over a long summer, groups and individuals had began to develop different ways of meeting and acting, so after Glasgow University had conceded to a number of key demands we left on 31st August, knowing we had made a major achievement in the purposes for which we began. And so it has proved. Almost all course closures have either been saved in some form, or are being reconsidered. The media response was huge in Scotland, but it was reported across the UK and European press and even US Time Magazine.

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Safer spaces policy

And already new groups have formed, aimed at working directly with communities in areas struggling with cuts; this weekend Scottish students occupied Edinburgh University in protest at the £36,000 fees being imposed on English and nonEU students; and major cross group planning is underway for the 1st October demonstrations. The student movement is stronger here than ever.

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The occupiers leave 

The seven-month occupation of the Hetherington Research Club galvanised a movement in Scotland that may otherwise have dwindled. We will continue to find new modes of activism, to challenge cuts and austerity, to develop new left ideas.

Though the Hetherington again lies empty, boarded up on University Avenue, the banner that hung there still rings true: the struggle continues. 

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The Free Hetherington banner at a student anti-cuts demonstration at the University of Glasgow

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Preparing dinner

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The occupation of the senate - a response to the Hetherington eviction

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Placards, the night before a march on June 22 to the University Court, where decisions were made on cuts at Glasgow University

Jonathan Nicholson is a photojournalist. Some of his work can be found at streephers.com

Cailean studies politics and philosophy at Oxford University, and is involved in activism both there and in Scotland. He is editor of the Oxford Left Review.

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