A Birmingham-based team of lawyers have been taken on by Sussex University after helping them deal with student occupation over the war in Gaza.
The universities team of Pinsent Mason, which operates out of offices in Colmore Square, was brought in by the Brighton university after more than 80 students occupied a lecture theatre at the start of the year.
After the Pinsent team advised the university on how to deal with the protesters, the demonstration – which had spread to other universities around the UK – eventually ended without trouble.
And the firm has now been taken on by the university to deal with all its legal issues. Birmingham-based Pinsent higher education specialist Nicola Hart leads the firm’s universities group, which has got about 100 lawyers in different disciplines working in it.
She said the appointment had been based on the work during the Gaza protest, but added: “It’s really a full spectrum appointment to do all the range of work that the university needs. For example, they have got some big plans for the development of their estate that we are helping them with a lot.”
She said higher education legal knowledge had really come to the fore for many firms dealing with universities when the invasion of Gaza sparked off a wave of student activism at the start of 2009.
Ms Hart said: “The people in our group are all interested in universities and have developed an understanding of how the sector works. We act for a lot of universities around the country and there was a wave of protests in January.
“We advised that the best way to respond to this was in a pretty low-key way, not just marching in and throwing people around.
“Universities are all very individual institutions and the students all have their own characters – the student union are quite active there in Brighton.”
Student protests began at several universities after the Israeli military launched an offensive aimed at stopping terrorist rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel. While the Sussex University protests were the most radical, many others saw protests inspired by Sussex students. At Warwick University students took over a lecture room and demanded the university suspend any links with arms companies.
Ms Hart said student activism was something that universities needed to be prepared for in a legal and public relations sense, even though it was not always a pressing issue at the moment.
She said: “The tactics used to deal with this would vary according to the style of the management. With these things it’s not always a legal issue, but more from a point of view of public relations.
“In Brighton, it ended fine because there was no violence or a big scene, even though it was quite a major sit-in. The last thing you want is scenes of fights or riots on university campuses
“I think student unions have been quite passive for a while and there just seems to be the odd thing that causes trouble – certainly the Gaza war did.”