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Architecture school closed as student occupation hits University of Sheffield


An occupation of Sheffield University’s Arts Tower by students protesting at proposed changes to staff pensions has forced the cancellation of architecture seminars for the second day running

The university said fire exits were barricaded and teaching would be disrupted following an occupation of the Arts Tower on Wednesday (14 March). The School of Architecture is based within the building, along with various management functions.

A group calling itself Sheffield Student Worker Solidarity said it organised the protest in solidarity with staff body the University and College Union, which on Tuesday rejected a proposal to end an ongoing dispute over further education pensions.

It has demanded that the university resist the proposed pension changes as well as freeze student accommodation rent levels and international student fees and said it intended to maintain occupation of the building ‘until management make considerable concessions to these demands’.

Defending its actions as a response to ‘the vicious attacks Universities UK has carried out on staff pensions nationwide’, Sheffield Student Worker Solidarity took to Facebook to explain its actions to architecture students, who are particularly hit by the occupation.

Its Facebook post began: ‘Dear students in the Architecture and Landscape Department, As you may know, the Arts Tower is currently under occupation and the space is now controlled by students. We did not come to this decision lightly and hope to give you a little more insight into the reasons we a retaking this action.’

Later it continued: ‘We will be making every effort to keep the space as open as possible, allowing students like yourselves to retrieve important pieces of coursework or even join the occupation.’

One architecture student, Ellie Piper, responded on Facebook: ‘I don’t think you understand that as architecture students we work every day in the Arts Tower and need it facilities. […] We are being completely messed up here and are being punished. We all support the strikes but this is directly affecting our education, which isn’t fair.’

We all support the strikes but this is directly affecting our education, which isn’t fair

The AJ understands that third year students are scheduled to have reviews this week, leaving some unable to retrieve their work from the Arts Tower. 

On Thursday morning architecture students gathered at the Arts Tower to protest about not having access to the building, saying their deadlines have not been extended as the sit-in protesters had demanded.


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Masters architecture student Matthew Forbes-Yandi told the AJ: ’We have had our building hijacked, and our education disrupted […] at the end of the day, it only detracts from the bigger issue here – the fact of the matter being our valued tutors are having great reductions in their financial future.’ 

A statement by the university said: ‘The Arts Tower has been occupied and physical barriers to fire exits are currently in place. On that basis, there is currently no access to the Arts Tower and staff based there should contact their line manager and agree local working arrangements until further notice.

‘Students who are due to receive lectures, seminars and tutorials in the building will be contacted separately and informed as soon as a rearranged timetable has been reviewed. This will take time so today’s teaching will be disrupted.’ 

Architect Danni Kerr, who is also a registered PhD student at the school, a sole practitioner working on projects in the city and also teaches at the school on a contract basis, said she fully supported the occupation. Kerr tweeted: ‘I had to rearrange a job interview for a staff position which was scheduled for today at the Arts Tower. Nevertheless I support this action and have cancelled my teaching for the remainder of this week.’

Kerr, who was made one of 12 role models by the RIBA in 2015, told the AJ that she was not at the site of the demonstration, but was made aware of it by an architecture student.

Professor Karim Hadjri, head of the architecture school, insisted the protesters were ‘not architecture students’ and added ‘there are no staff involved’.

Occupations are currently happening in universities across the UK, including the University of Cambridge, the University of Bath and the University of Aberdeen.


Readers' comments (7)

  • Only one fire exit is actually baricated and thats the front entrance to the building. The occupiers have been letting students in to collect work though the university's security staff have been blocking this, letting no-one get through to the building.

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  • It's more than just architecture lessons that are cancelled. Third year students have reviews with visiting professors and professionals tomorrow and Friday, this has caused disruption to work production to adequately prepare for these reviews, and many student's work is locked in the building, leaving them unable to present it.

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  • MArch students were also due to have reviews this week with visiting professionals. Half of the MArch course managed to have their reviews on Tuesday with limited staff (often single guest reviewer). The other half was meant to have reviews today, that have now been cancelled. Some students decided to go along and host peer reviews in other locations on campus. We have been told we will have no access to the Arts Tower until Monday. The disruption caused by this action is horrible and truly impacts our work. Some of us are worried about the more long term consequences of this such as being behind with our Y6 theses or the issue of grading at the end of the year.

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  • Perhaps Danni Kerr - wearing the hats of both student and staff member - would care to address the concerns voiced by the various students above - or does she consider that the aims and actions of 'Sheffield Student Worker Solidarity' take precedence over the concerns of the architecture students themselves?

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  • Architecture students have the reputation of being the hardest working and most dedicated on campus – any campus and this is richly deserved. It is important in these situations not to polarise opinion into black and white positions and this includes priorities.

    A key aspect of an architecture education and developing as a professional is grappling with the balance of principles at play. We find ourselves in situation where we are concerned about our duties with respect to: health and safety, disruption to study and teaching, welfare, freedom of expression and working conditions. These are all legitimate and from our architects’ perspective ideas we can seek to integrate in practice.

    In practice, on the ground there is a concerted, creative and meaningful effort being put in behind the scenes by architecture teachers at all levels including me. I’m an atypically employed worker, I’m not a member of staff, I have to navigate between powerful bodies the best I can and it’s with great regret that I haven’t been able to make all of my planned provision in this last week of the UCU action.

    It natural for any us to feel conflicted in difficult circumstances, I certainly do. So I remember as architects we celebrate the notion that ‘there is no such thing as a design problem, there are only design opportunities’. As an architect, teacher and student of architecture, I can’t help seeing some of the events arising from the dispute in terms of spatial politics. If on a strike day, I arrange a site visit for my students so that they are off campus but progressing with their studies then I am engaged in spatial politics. Whether you support the strike or not a UCU picket line is direct spatial politics and I would observe so is the occupation and of course the response from students. I think in future this is what you will remember, what you'll talk about about and reflect on.

    I too am reflecting on this. I share the view that our profession has a culture of overwork often including wasteful over-delivery; I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. I am often (yes often) heard saying “If we don’t have a life outside of architecture how can we bring our experience of life to architecture?” this more accurately reflects my plea and my motivations for speaking out.

    How does our culture arise at our schools of architecture? How can we design our education to mitigate our drive to work, engender a healthy life balance and remain dedicated? Can we all take the opportunity arising from the circumstances of the dispute and the occupation to reflect on this as a more fundamental welfare issue? Should this be our priority?

    I appreciate your challenge and I'm grateful for the opportunity to clarify my position. Best Wishes - Danni

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  • This is old account it has my old name on :-)

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  • My concern is not the protest - surely no-one can argue that this isn't justified - but the 'occupation'.
    There's a long history of student protests involving occupations - and they seem usually to be aimed at the offices of those who are accused of wrongdoing - but in this case it seems to be impacting on the freedom of the architecture students to go about their everyday work (albeit, according to Petros Antoniou, due more to the action of the university security staff than to the occupation itself).

    It appears that the barricading of fire exits is - surely predictably - the reason for the closure of access to the Arts Tower, and in these circumstances I think that the occupation is wrong headed, unjustified and quite likely to prove counter-productive.

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