On Tuesday, November 26, around one hundred students from the University of Sussex reclaimed the university conference center for the purposes of an occupation. The demands stated by the occupation called for a halt to the privatization of campus services, a democratic overhaul of the university’s structures, an end to intimidation tactics being deployed by management, solidarity with the higher education-wide strike held on December 3, and for a statement from the university in favor of free education. The occupation came to a close on the morning of Tuesday, December 3, as occupants left to support striking staff on picket lines and with road blocks. Following the occupation, five students have been suspended indefinitely.
The Sussex Against Privatisation campaign began in May 2012 in response to the announcement by university management that 235 jobs — over 10% of university employees — were to be outsourced. Over the subsequent year, the profile of the campaign grew with support amassing on campus through the yellow square symbol (a reference to the red squares which came to symbolize the Quebec student movement), and a lengthy student occupation during the spring term which ended with violent eviction by bailiffs. This period also saw a national demonstration held at the university on March 25, 2013, which drew thousands of sympathizers from across the country right to the doors of Sussex management, and saw the launch of the ‘Pop-Up Union’ initiative to represent the affected workers.
It is thought that this most recent occupation began in the evening of November 26, following a postgraduate event held in the university’s conference center in Bramber House. As the event drew to a close, protesters were able to enter through an open door, securing the spacious top-floor conference center which has recently had room leased to Chartwells, the outsourcing company brought in by management in September to take over catering services. Although CCTV footage appears to show students walking calmly though the center, university management later alleged that students were intimidating and violent.
The occupation itself was used primarily as a base for raising publicity about ongoing privatization plans as well as building support for the upcoming strike. Although protesters were unable to secure open access to the space as they had initially intended, they were still able to receive donations of food and blankets via a rope winch from the balconies, and were able to bring people into the space through alternative entrances with a little prior planning. On two occasions, solidarity demonstrations held on campus were used to rush large numbers past private security into the occupation. Throughout the week, the space was repurposed with rooms being used for open meetings, study spaces, film screenings and a hugely successful open mic night at the weekend.
Almost as soon as the occupation began, the university sought legal proceedings in the form of a high court possession order, insisting the students had no right to be there. Unbeknown to university management, students had already opted amongst themselves to leave in order to support the strike. Undeterred in their efforts, protesters were only really concerned at the increasing readiness of management to deploy legalistic solutions to political issues, rather than enter into any meaningful dialogue with staff or students. After the end of the spring term occupation, management sought and were granted a four-month ban on all protest across campus.
Ground teams were deployed daily to talk to other students and to build support for the strike, encouraging people not to cross the picket lines. Despite the Student Union’s official stance of supporting the strike, it was telling just how many students were unaware of the strike or of the issues at stake — namely the 13% real-terms pay cut over the last five years, and the gendered pay-gap across higher education; the highest of any sector.
The morning of strike day began with the occupants vacating the conference center before marching and singing towards one of the four picket lines established by the three campus trade unions: UCU, Unite and UNISON. Support was well received by staff, who appeared to be out in greater number than the last joint strike day. A new feature was the fairly impromptu setting-up of roaming road blocks, which disrupted the flow of traffic and deliveries to campus, beginning with the top-of-the-range Mercedes sports car of Claire Mackie, pro-Vice Chancellor.
While the road blocks were held away from union picket lines so as not to contravene the stringent anti-union laws around picketing, rank-and-file members privately expressed their delight and amusement at the road blocks. Unfortunately the same could not be said of the UCU chair, who encouraged security to call the police, or the three drivers who chose to run students over. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured.
On the evening of the following day, Wednesday December 4, five students received emails informing them that they had been suspended from their degrees indefinitely and were banned from coming onto campus. The Sussex Five (or ‘Farthings Five’, as they have now become known, in reference to Sussex Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing) were suspended without evidence or justification, other than that they were deemed to have played ‘organizational roles’ in the occupation and related activities, and posed a threat to staff, students, and health and safety.
The draconian measures have been slammed throughout the Sussex community, with around 400 people attending a hastily-called demonstration in solidarity with the suspended students on Thursday, December 5, and again on Friday, December 6. A petition organized by USSU, the Sussex Student Union, attracted over 7,200 signatures in just 48 hours, and numerous academics have circulated letters of disgust at the management’s attempts to quash dissent by making an example of a handful of students, who include three elected student union representatives.
Prior to the suspensions, Sussex Against Privatisation had already promised further actions. Unwittingly, Sussex university management may have just provided a perfect platform for escalation.
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