When a dozen or so students stormed their campus, university officials cut the power, wifi and access to loos. They refused to negotiate, and very soon the whole thing began to fizzle out. That was New York University. The reaction at Edinburgh was a very different affair, one that has left the reputation of the university tarred and set a worrying precedent. A strange phenomenon has spread from campus to campus this term in the form of a small bunch of well organised, well equipped and well out of line protesters illegally occupying various buildings across American and European universities. The general model for these sit-ins has been the same: get in there, take some photos, set up a blog and watch the chaos ensue as you block thousands of students from receiving the education for which they are paying. How much these protests have actually achieved is open for debate. Last time I checked I don't think the Israeli government was considering a radical change in policy based on twenty-odd students, a guitar and the "creative space" they made for themselves to change the world in.
When the George Square Theatre was occupied last week, it at first seemed that the university was giving tacit consent to the actions of the protesters. They kept the wifi on, allowing them to pump their thinly disguised anti-Zionist thought across the world via their website and Flickr. This really was a 21st century protest, as the glimpse into their press operation showed. I wonder what the protesters of '68 would have thought about sitting around drinking herbal tea while furiously typing into your Mac and checking the Blackberry. The university even opted to keep the heating on, fearing that because of health and safety laws, the building had to be kept above a certain temperature. One thing was clear from the start though: the university was not going to bankrupt itself by disinvesting in BAE systems or stopping the fantastic research that it conducts here into weapons systems and national defence. The other demands of these noble warriors were futile in comparison. While the university refused to cave in on anything significant they did, however, fob off the protesters with some lectures that already happen departmentally; some scholarships that already happen through EUSA; an ethical investigation into university investments that already happens; and a boycott of drinking water provided by Eden Springs. The protesters' spin operation went into overdrive, when they claimed victory despite the fact that morale was already low, and many were calling to give up. You would have thought they had driven Israel into the sea with the glee and the joy with which they were celebrating their heroic withdrawal.
As the dust begins to settle though, it is clear that this was a clever tactic by the University, even if it sets a dangerous precedent. The only people affected by this whole protest are the students who were deprived of the education they pay for; the protest changed nothing and deep down its organisers will know this. Life will go on at Edinburgh University – and the George Square protestors have only succeeded in wounding their cause.
Harry Cole is the Chairman of Edinburgh University Conservatives. He blogs at torybear.com