Lucy Ward reports that while the National Union of Students backs management . . . The expulsion of a student activist by a London college has won endorsement from national student leaders but been condemned as political victimisation by lecturers.
NATFHE, the college lecturers' union, and the National Union of Students have moved into opposing camps over Kingsway College governors' decision to expel Nick De Marco, one of three students accused of a paint attack on Tory party chairman Dr Brian Mawhinney.
While the NATFHE branch is supporting the students and insisting management succumbed to external political pressure, the NUS has highlighted violence involved in student protests at the college and suggested that repeated occupations and other tactics used by demonstrators are a relic of the past.
Disciplinary proceedings were launched against Mr De Marco, student union president at Kingsway, and fellow union officers Naveed Malick and Karen Doyle in the wake of the attack on Dr Mawhinney last November. The three now face assault charges.
The day after the incident, the three held an impromptu press conference on campus, which managers and governors claim directly linked the action with the college.
The student union said the protest was designed to draw attention to the effects of new laws affecting asylum seekers, and set up an organisation called Movement for Justice to oppose the legislation.
However, management objected to the new group's pledge to use "any means necessary" to advance its cause, and the college swiftly became embroiled in conflict.
Following student occupations of parts of one site, a high court injunction was taken out banning Mr De Marco, 28, and Ms Doyle and Ms Malick, both 18, from entering the college premises for three months.
Last week's expulsion is being linked by the college directly to damage caused to equipment, including books and computers, during a series of campus occupations and demonstrations following the suspensions. The threat of disruption this week continued to hang over the college.
Pete Green, NATFHE coordinating secretary at Kingsway, said the union condemned any violence used, but added: "We feel the college has given in to pressure from external sources including ministers and the tabloid press. " The branch is calling on governors to negotiate with the student union branch.
Meanwhile, national NUS leaders issued a vigorous condemnation of violent tactics. Regional officer for London Sharon Hunter said: "Once violence gets introduced into the political arena it is impossible to have any kind of fair democratic process because people are intimidated."
The Kingsway protest is far from typical of student activities in colleges, according to the union. Students, many of whom will have spent nearly their entire lives without seeing a change of party in Government, are nowadays much more likely to be campaigning over educational issues, including course funding and financial support, or for better campus facilities. Occupations still take place but are almost always brief, one-day demonstrations designed to draw attention to a particular issue.
"Most students do not try to bring down the college or stop it functioning, " Ms Hunter said. "The wacky 1960s stunts where about 30 students would gather round and try to levitate a building really don't happen any more."
Students were still concerned with external issues such as race relations or gay rights, but most opted to make their case through attending national demonstrations or the "boring slog" of leafleting or lobbying MPs.
Kingsway College itself has been left battered by its three months of protests, with the attendant media limelight. Managers are anxious to play down the significance of the De Marco affair, insisting the Movement for Justice has barely half a dozen members and pointing to "a great deal of apathy" among students outside of NUS circles.
Hints are given that the disruption has more to do with the student union president's political ambition than with the asylum seekers' cause.
A spokeswoman said: "We regret having to expel any student because obviously we don't want anybody's life chances damaged. But we are a learning community and we cannot condone violence which disrupts that."
Mr De Marco, however, remained undeterred. This week he claimed to have strong support from staff and fellow students. "I will appeal against this expulsion and fight on," he said.