The renowned philosopher, 62, was shouted down by more than a dozen protesters – angry at his plans to open a new private college – during the debate about cuts to the arts at Foyles bookshop in central London.
At the end of the heated hour-long debate, during which Prof Grayling was verbally abused by students protesting against his plans, protesters set off the device.
Prof Grayling and the three other speakers were quickly ushered from the room, and into the back of the shop, as it filled with pungent red smoke just before 8pm.
Organisers were forced to evacuate about 100 people amid fears for the safety of the crowd just moments after the philosopher said he would talk to the protesters.
Prof Grayling had told the crowd he was willing to continue discussing his proposals, but that plan was abandoned by organisers after the smoke bomb attack.
It remains unclear who the protestors were, but many appeared to be students, angry about the decision to charge more than double the maximum tuition fees for courses.
Despite knowing about planned protests, organisers insisted on continuing the debate because they wanted a “free exchange of ideas”.
Prof Grayling, who will become the president of the New College of the Humanities (NCH) which will charge students fees of £18,000 each year, was heckled as he tried to talk about cuts to the arts.
The debate was his first public appearance since details of the institution were disclosed at the weekend.
The other speakers were Mick Gordon, an Irish theatre director, and Christopher Frayling, the former Arts Council chairman while the chair Al Senter, an arts journalist, struggled to control the crowd.
On several occasions, Prof Grayling was shouted down during the debate as he sought to defend the new institution.
As soon as joined in the discussion, someone from the crowd shouted: “You have no right to speak”.
Prof Grayling, who will be the college’s first Master, appeared taken aback by the protests although he insisted he “didn’t expect to change minds”.
Protesters started shouting at Prof Grayling: “AC Grayling get out, job cuts, money for the bosses.”
The debate was his first public appearance since details of the institution were disclosed at the weekend. Many protesters appeared to be students angry about the decision to charge more than double the maximum tuition fees for course.
As soon as the philosopher joined in the discussion, someone from the crowd shouted: “You have no right to speak”.
One protester said: “You should be defending public education, not deserting it.” Another shouted: “He may be a public intellect, but he is blinkered.”
Prof Grayling, who will be the college’s first Master, appeared to be taken aback by the protests.
He said: “We are in danger of losing sight of the importance to society of a higher education in the humanities.”
He later told reporters: “It is always upsetting of being the targets of attacks.
“Of course I am disasapointed to that we did not have an opportunity to debate the topic of the evening which was about cuts to the arts.
“And I would have been really happy to talk to the students afterwards as I offered to stay on afterwards. And talk to them and then the smoke bomb was set off and that ended the conversation.”
He added: “I didn’t expect to change minds there because I understand the real anxiety that people feel in higher education.
“I share with them the belief that we should as a society, we should invest in education at every level and invest properly.”
Sion Hamilton, the store’s manager, said: “We were aware of the proposed protest today, but chose not cancel the event because Foyles bookshop is a space for the free exchange of ideas and intelligent debate.
“Professor Grayling offered to answer students’ questions for 20 minutes after the scheduled event, we regret that one individual decided to curtail this opportunity for further discussion by letting off a smoke bomb at the end. We evacuated the room swiftly and safetly.”
The institution in London has received funds of up to £10 million from City financiers and its 14 professors. It is inviting applications from students for 2012.
Fees are twice as high as the maximum that can be charged by state-funded institutions. Its backers, several of whom are shareholders, insist this would allow them to offer the “highest quality” education. Source: The Telegraph
Predictably, the plans to open up the UK higher education market to high quality private competition have been criticised by academics as being ‘elitist’.
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