It is hard to say when exactly the idea of student occupations was born, but some trace it to student protests in Columbia University, New York, in 1968 against the university’s alleged involvement in a defence think tank; these protests involved the occupation of several campus buildings, from which the students were eventually evicted by police action.
In the years that followed, student occupations became a common weapon in protests, to the point where they was almost a reflex action. Unhappy with President Nixon’s re-election? Occupy the administration building! Want to end the Vietnam war? Occupy the university library! These actions were often fun, though whether they achieved anything very much is another matter.
During the more conservative years that followed from the 1980s onwards, student occupations became very rare. But now, it seems, they are back; so much so that there is even a website dedicated exclusively to student occupations, starting with British university occupations in protest at Israel’s offensive against Gaza, and more recently the wave of occupations prompted by British government funding cuts in higher education.
I must now confess that, rather many years ago, I too participated in an occupation or two. Of course the occupations had no effect whatsoever on the grand political issues at they were directed, but I would not say that they were pointless: they produced debate and political analysis amongst the occupiers, some of it not uninteresting. But until recently I would have said that, as a society, we have moved on: we have very different opportunities for registering our views these days. Also, my concern (as I have stated before) is that these occupations actually help to turn the wider public against universities, something that we cannot afford right now.
I would not dismiss the intentions and motives of at least some of the protestors; but I think their methods are misguided, not least because they give opportunities to some whose motives are rather less clear.