- Category: Analysis
- Published on Tuesday, 10 December 2013
- Written by Hannah E
A recent Huffington Post poll of the “most political” British universities – which was based on the frequency of political activity and protest and the progressive nature of institutional directives, faculties and offered courses – put Sussex University in the top five. On that front, it’s fair to say that Sussex made it on that list despite, not because, of its managerial and institutional practices. Here’s why.
In 2009/2010 this university managerial suite led by Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing and his Registrar, John Duffy, announced cutbacks in university spending of around £8 million to take place over two years (it has taken longer). The cuts were to include hundreds of forced redundancies, pension cuts and humanities course closures. This was to be accompanied by the restructuring or closure of the student advice service, campus security, university catering and crèche facilities. In 2010, frustrated by the refusal of the university to consult its members about the dramatic restructuring, hundreds of students occupied the management building, which culminated in riot police violently dispersing protesters and the suspension of six students. Opposition to the privatisation or shutdown of these latter services was one of the main political statements of the momentous two-month occupation of the Bramber House building on the Sussex campus that took place earlier this year. The principles of accessible education, fair pay for lecturers, tutors and staff, and democratic university governance that guided the protests in 2010 continue to animate the thousands of campus participants today. So what are the lessons current Sussex students can take from this, and what lessons has the university management failed to grasp from that last experience?
Sussex Management (VCEG) were met with wide campus, media and community hostility in 2010 in response to their decision to bring riot police on campus, suspend six students and completely ignore the concerns raised by students and staff. Thousands of students subverted their claim that those students could be lawfully suspended based on their occupation of a university building, by taking pictures of themselves holding a sign “I occupied Sussex House”. The six students were reinstated, albeit with a fine of £300 each. Management would do well to remember this, as hundreds demonstrate today with a larger protest planned for tomorrow and over 5,000 signatures so far attached to a petition, soon to be tabled as an EDM in parliament.
What of the latest suspensions? In his email to the five suspended students, Vice Chancellor Farthing cited clauses 3.2 and 3.3 of the university’s health and safety regulations as grounds for what he claims is a decision that he is entitled to make alone, but on which he nevertheless consulted with “senior colleagues”, i.e. members of VCEG. Such violation entails students being a “potential threat to the safety and well-being of students, staff or visitors…[or] represent[ing] a hazard to sustaining the university’s policies on health and safety.” From this, one reaches three natural conclusions. The first is that the exclusion of university members from campus, and hence health clinics, counselling and support services, is itself an obvious violation of the university’s health and safety duties towards its students. Secondly, without specification in the email, it should be obvious that students “occupying” a building that they frequently walk into as part of their studies – an image of an oversubscribed seminar with students sitting on the floor comes to mind – isn’t in any way a clear violation of health and safety. Thirdly, to claim that these suspensions are based on occupying a building – a right that thousands of students, including myself have exercised – is contradictory: how is it fair not to suspend them all?
All of this raises a paradox: by whose measures has sustained student presence in a building violated the spectre that is “health and safety protocols”? Specifically, how is it that the presence of private security bouncers, riot police, dogs and unregulated private catering as well as the absence of crèche facilities and student advice services have been deemed entirely conducive to said protocols?
The answer to both questions can be found in precisely the issue that has enabled this overhaul of the university’s practices and animated large-scale discontent: namely the de-democratisation of university governance. At the outset, educational institutions, including Sussex, were set up so that decisions were made collectively in university senate meetings open to students, staff and faculty elected by their peers. Today many departments no longer decide faculty appointments and course offerings, funds are allocated internally according to cost-benefit analyses à la Goldman Sachs, student access to education is vacated of all social and academic concern and relegated to the financial powers that be, while university services previously deemed necessary for its functionality – crèches, equal access, counselling, subsidised housing and food – are axed without redress. Indeed, Sussex VCEG’s appointment is itself decided by an external council of trustees: a group of bankers, businessmen and public figures, bereft of accountability to the students and staff who make the university function.
It’s clear that managerial boards at Sussex, and at universities across the country, are not listening to their members. Their decisions are not based on the welfare of the people who constitute an educational institution nor in fact on the ostensible objective of public education, that is, knowledge not profit. Recent FOIs reveal that VCEG has spent over £81,000 on legal fees for bogus court cases that were discarded without hearing for lack of evidence, and over £500,000 on the private security bouncers it relied on for whipping up elaborate witness statements against students and for beating them up – and that’s for the February occupation alone. To spend at least 10% of the total proposed budget savings over a ten-year period, and certainly more than 100% of any professed “savings” from the privatisation, is in the first instance financially unscrupulous and in the second evidence of VCEG’s ability to act with complete impunity. For many, this story should read like the Con-Dem austerity narrative, where all those who had no say in the banks’ exuberance or the decision to bail them out are paying for it, and dearly. If VCEG have learnt any lessons, it is the one being given to us all – students, workers, women, the unemployed, black and disabled people – by this coalition government: that redistribution will be in favour of private not pubic enterprise; that production will be in favour of profitable not beneficial goods; that dissent or discontent with one’s miserable life opportunities is to be met with draconian severity and ludicrous appeals to pedantry and bureaucracy. Students and staff at Sussex, however, are teaching management a lesson of their own, even as management attempts to divide the movement by “lifting the students’ suspensions”: a campus-wide walkout is set for tomorrow demanding the end to all restrictions on any forms of protest on campus as well as reasserting the demands of the anti-privatisation campaign.