Occupy Sussex: a new wind blowing through student politics?
Maïa Pal discuss the history and wider implications of the current occupation at Sussex University.
“Sussex University used to be like a village” Member of staff affected by privatisation, 18 Feb 2013
“I think this makes [vice chancellor] Farthing look weak and distrustful, and has no place on a university campus.” Member of academic staff, 14 Feb 2013
As the occupation of Bramber House at Sussex University enters its second full week, it’s time to take stock. Our aim is to tie together a set of different inter-related issues, giving space to Occupy Sussex as its own entity whilst at the same time placing it within a broader arc of rebellion and resistance to global capital and to the national neo-liberalisation of public services.
The unique and experimental nature of the occupation – begun and sustained without the direct involvement or guidance of pre-existent radical left organisations – brings to the surface different currents of thought and ideas that have been circulating within the ACI, particularly the role of horizontalism, organic practices of resistance, experimentation with organizational form and leadership, and sustaining morale during and after the event.
At the same time, the occupation emerges as a fantastic opportunity to bring to life nine months of organising and campaigning, which laid a solid ground in terms of commitment and of building physical, virtual and political resources from which the occupation could spring from.
This process, which also went against the traditional sectarian reflexes of left organisations, was based on people who aren’t necessarily attached to traditional leftist ideology, trying to bring the Sussex campus community together to defend what is left of its integrity as a working, educational, and emancipatory environment. This helps us to reflect on how communities are reacting to the way management dissects our public and private lives, and, crucially, how more can be achieved by working together more closely.
Slowly but surely: the history of the campaign
Last Thursday, February 14th, felt historic. In front of an absolutely crammed occupation room with over 300 people who had come to listen to, among others, Caroline Lucas MP, Mark Steel and Will Self, (see links for speeches on that evening) one had to wonder: since the management’s decision In May 2012 to privatise, outsource, or as is most currently used by the almighty VCEG, to ‘obtain expertise from external partners’ for most of its services, what had happened in the last nine months?
However rebranded, the new plan consists in radically transforming the institutional and financial infrastructure of the university. This means 235 current members of staff will be moved from in-house management to being employed by one of two private companies. The latest reason provided for this restructuring relates to the management’s long-term strategies of student expansion. From 2000 to 2010, Sussex had an increase of 2,000 students. Somehow, it wants to attract 7,000 more students in the next 6 years… How exactly it aims to do so, and what the repercussions of this massive expansion will be, are still a complete mystery to all.
Moreover, this plan comes after a series of catastrophic decisions since Michael Farthing became Vice-Chancellor in autumn 2007: 110 redundancies (80% of which academic) in 2010; an appalling and disproportionate response to student protests, involving abuse of power by management through the use of riot police and victimisation of students; the closure of CCE, a great centre for adult learning; a scandal over overseas students fee-increases, for which management had to apologise and retract; repeated motions of no confidence in the VC by Student Union and also by fellow universities deciding to leave group of 1994 headed by Farthing; and a scandal over moving of departments with SPRU (leading think tank) threatening to leave Sussex for UCL…
In other words, having repeatedly failed to demonstrate any success in their unpopular policies, how would anybody trust this management team to carry out such a bold and unprecedented outsourcing? The current climate for the grand expansion (20,000 students by 2020) is too uncertain, in terms of government policy towards visas and foreign students (who are supposed to make up 25% of planned expansion) and the as yet unknown repercussions of the £9000 tuition fee hike, which are already negatively affecting student applications.
Nevertheless, after some very well attended demonstrations and meetings in May and June 2012, the closing of the academic year and the intransigence of management provided a difficult obstacle to sustaining the campaign. Meetings between staff and students re-emerged in August, and the new academic year started with a healthy and determined group of activists, composed of students, staff, and union reps eager to push the campaign forward. With stalls at freshers’ fair, an excellent anti-privatisation blog, our very own Bulletin, a good demo in the Autumn, and dedication to flyering and spreading the word, spirits were up for trying to outreach to a broader base. Bit by bit, we built up our mailing lists and facebook group, and tried to follow the slow process of negotiation between management and the three unions involved, UNISON, UCU, and Unite.
In November, at the Student Union’s AGM, we won a vote on a motion to support the campaign. This was an important step in harnessing the student’s union support, and in attracting more people’s attention. However, this process was still proving to be too slow, and our small base of activists struggled to maintain the enthusiasm and energy it required. Winter settled in, and with it, the unwanted but inevitable feeling that we might be wasting our time.
But, as the new year emerged, activists came back with good ideas and determination to not let management win. A visibility campaign was declared, and yellow squares were distributed to replace the original but too expensive yellow badges (incidentally, the yellow badge has created a ‘badgegate’ between staff and management, who have forbidden the former to put an electronic badge at the bottom of their emails). This has been a great opportunity for a clin d’oeil (reference) to the recent movement in Québec, a student struggle which has influenced so many of us. Yellow squares now proudly occupy many office windows, and have given a new light to our famous red brick buildings.
From Save Sussex Services to Occupy Sussex
On the evening of the 7th February 2013, what began as a workers led campaign among campus based activists grew rapidly into an ongoing occupation of the 3rd floor of Bramber House by around 30-40 core participants. The occupation was preceded by a demonstration of a few hundred people against the outsourcing process. The original demands of the occupation remain unaddressed, and as a recent letter exchange between the VC and the Occupiers demonstrate, the occupation was undertaken after all previous channels of engagement and discussion had failed.
Unsurprisingly, this is not how the University management see it, as previous rounds of discussion – which to all extent and purposes were a one-way, top-down issuing of restructuring plans – are viewed by the VC and his clique as legitimate and democratic fora/systems of engagement that have now been transgressed by a ragtag minority of students.
The initial response of the University management has been typical, reflecting the pattern of deception engineered during the occupations of A2 lecture hall and Sussex House in 2010. This included falsification of statements of staff working in the buildings (‘fearing for their lives’) and even the University registrar claiming that he had been taken hostage by the occupiers. It also involved a disproportionate mobilisation of private security around the campus, as an attempt to show that management are ‘protecting’ the apparently terrified staff.
This disproportionate use continues. Never mind that the 3rd floor of Bramber house has very little permanent staff working there; the fact that it is a prime conference space from which the University management have lost revenue seems to justify the excessive 24h/24 presence of two to three security guards in front of the occupation doors.
Nevertheless, this time around, the scale and unanticipated nature of the occupation caught management by surprise. The media war around the issue, the ability to sway discourse, and the open and honest nature of their conduct, have drawn sympathy towards the occupiers. National and local media have been quick to report and draw positive attention towards the occupation, and local and national figures of support such as Caroline Lucas MP, Mark Steel, Will Self, Noam Chomsky, Josie Long and Peter Capaldi have galvanised students and staff on and off campus.
Demos are organised every two-three days, and fantastic events are taking place every day, with artists and academics from across the country, in the occupation room which is now opened to the public from 8am to 10pm. The campus trade unions, with the Student Union, have called for an emergency Council meeting, and UCU have replied in style to an intimidation and misinformation letter by management to selected staff.
Occupy Sussex is now a figurine of hope against the neo-liberal restructuring of higher education, a process led by the current VC since 2007/08. Occupy Sussex has its immediate roots in a protest against the outsourcing of 235 non-academic service staff, and as such reflects both a fundamental alliance of Sussex university students and local Brighton working class interests, and the manner in which this damaging re-structuring has affected all layers of the local community.
However, the endurance of the occupation thus far showcases a deeper resentment and distrust of the VC and his cabal that has now gone beyond tolerance. Year after year of ignoring the interests and demands of staff and students, petitions having been circulated for Michael Farthing’s resignation, he remains curiously silent, capitulating to the students on Monday 12th February as the occupation took control of the entrance and exits to Bramber house.
In early 2010, occupations in the University of Sussex were responsible for the radicalisation of consciousness amongst many students on and off campus. The second half of that year witnessed a huge, nation-wide mobilisation of students in an attempt to save higher education. The apparent dissipation of that movement, and other failures amongst the left to effectively combat the tyranny of austerity, have been blamed on many factors, not least the in-fighting between different groups that were crucial to the initial re-vitalisation of student politics in 2010, but also the intransigence of the NUS and its leadership.
Like the management of the University itself, bargaining behind closed doors, lack of consultation with the mass of the student body and side-stepping of accountability left the student movement exhausted and deflated, while the hard work and energy of hundreds of activists and thousands of protestors met with a brick wall of establishment-sanctioned concessions.
The organization of Occupy Sussex
Since then, the nature of global protest and rebellion has changed. The Occupy movements across the world – if not having thus far made a lasting, recognisable transformation – and the movements of the Arab Spring, have opened up new potentialities in the way resistance can be carried out. A few things to note about Occupy Sussex (thanks to Alex Benham for notes and discussion from inside the occupation):
- It is completely horizontally organised. General assemblies meet everyday (sometimes twice a day), with every proposal or idea being put forward as a motion to take forward. These assemblies have reached over 200 students and staff. Supporters and participants are free to come and go, with around 50-60 core remaining permanently within the occupied area.
- There are so far 9 ‘Working Groups’ that emerged from the general assembly: Campaigns, Security, Welfare, Food, Environment, Zine, Media, Events, and 235 contact. There is scope for the formation of more working groups during each meeting of the General assembly. Membership of each working group is voluntary, and people can participate as much as their capabilities/interest allows them to, and in more than one working group if they want. No one is pressured to do anything, as there is no defined leadership. Everyone is encouraged to contribute to policy; ideas have been bountiful and creative orientated to help raise the profile of Occupy Sussex through non-traditional methods.
- There was minimal involvement by the University of Sussex Student’s Union in the occupation until the 12th of February- though they have been co-operative and supportive with the provision of legal observers, for example.
- No one political group have been overtly influential in either the build-up campaign, the initial phase of the occupation, or its growth over the last week. There has been a noticeable lack of paraphernalia from political organizations, though many activists from different, largely radical left groups, have been key participants.
- The emphasis has been on a political campaign which did not require support for a particular left-wing ideology, unburdened with organizational bureaucracy or methods. The overwhelming response has been one of high morale, a sense of achievement after months of failed negotiations with management, and a genuine sense that the occupiers are not just offering an alternative, but that they are the alternative to the university management- in particular with regard to democratising the entire running of the University.
Though still in an early stage, the lessons emerging from Occupy Sussex are already apparent. Like other Occupy movements around the world, there was a blend of hard campaigning and spontaneity in the initial phase, a point at which frustrations with management reached a critical mass, and an organic sense of unity in the face of bureaucracy and arrogance. This organic sense of unity has naturally led to an organic (un)structure of organization within the occupied area, and also in how the movement has dealt with the community and media during the week.
Whilst previous occupations/movements have relied on the resources of the Student Union and energy (and organisational intensity) of radical left parties, the current state of disarray of the key campus based left groups and initial apathy of the Student Union has meant that the core of radical organisers of the 235 campaign were given space to use their creativity and tenacity to accomplish something that might have otherwise been hindered through official or traditional methods of student resistance and leadership.
Instead, Occupy Sussex has witnessed leaderless, self-organized and horizontal resistance, confident in its abilities, and entrusting participants and supporters with both practical tasks, creation and management of supporting events on a daily basis, and circulating ideas and thoughts about how to move forward in a non-dogmatic and non-sectarian manner.
Finally, it was able to capture a fresh and candid attitude to protest: the extremely positive, inquisitive, creative-based nature of the social interactions between occupiers, coupled to their relentless and hardworking determination created a unique atmosphere. Between massages, stretching sessions, cleaning rotas and organising meetings, or the cycle of bumping into new conversations and ideas for the campaign while trying to cross the room, which, as a founding campaign member Adriano Merola Marotta lamented, implied the constant risk of forgetting what one is actually doing, an innovative and active social space has been created from below and for below.
The management offensive, 2007-2012
Of course, the decision of the University management to cut 10% of support staff jobs – the 235 – is the latest of a series of neo-liberal offensives launched within the University since 2007 that has touched all sections of the community at Sussex. In some ways, it might therefore also be instructive to see Occupy Sussex as a culmination, or re-orientation of a series of resistance initiatives, each one having a new generation of undergraduates at the core of it. In this period, there have been both Labour and Conservative-Lib Dem governments, and as such, the resistance against the restructuring of the University of Sussex should be placed in the context of a wider national re-structuring of the public sector. Whether we deem this to be ‘privatization,’ ‘outsourcing,’ ‘marketisation’ or ‘commodification’ of services, the important point to note is the way in which both the University management at Sussex and politicians and policy-makers at a national level have justified their decisions.
In both the micro-case of the University of Sussex, and the severe national austerity policies that have targeted education, health and housing, the elite leaderships have professed that there are no other alternatives to austerity, to cuts in services and cuts in staff. They profess that economic conditions of global retrenchment – conditions apparently beyond their control – enforce these changes as necessary. There seems to be little concern that these ‘changes’ involve not just the termination of livelihoods, social security support, education rights, workplace security, and the continued dismantling of the welfare state – but also the sapping of morale, ideas of community and a dramatic increase in inequality.
Since the appointment of Michael Farthing as VC, the University has witnessed cuts in academic, administrative and other support staff. Individual lecturers find themselves on year-long rolling contracts, their future job security dependent on complying to demands for securing funding streams. Individual departments and schools have to find ways of saving money, affecting the provision of teaching, the wages of associate tutors and the culture of working in the academy. Large construction projects may have transformed the aesthetic of the University of Sussex – as it moves full gear away from its Brutalist heritage towards the glass-paneled ubiquity of late capitalism – but the cost of life for students has increased and many are priced out of the provisions now delivered by the market-driven model for campus development.
The changes initiated by Farthing reflect broader neo-liberal transformations in the world economy. They instrumentalise and attempt to place an exchangeable value upon the experience, creativity and sense of community that lays at the heart of society. Those elites – whether they be the Prime Minister, the governor of a central bank, or a university vice-chancellor, showcase a distinct and peculiarly late capitalist set of values, ones that arrogantly dismiss alternatives and prioritise ‘indivudal choice’ as consumers in a free-market economy anchored in unaccountable transnational capital rather than as citizens in a democratic society anchored in rights, welfare and equality.
The Occupy Sussex movement, in its structure, form and content, is one that directly responds to this sense of dismissal. There is a sense that there is no point undertaking the traditional paths of negotiation and bargaining when there is simply no sign that the management will take the demands and wishes of those affected seriously. It resonates with the attitude of the current and past government, and the manner in which politicians continue to hammer the message of austerity. The Occupy Sussex movement is as such, an example of how the fundamentals of struggle – the genuine, spontaneous ideals of freedom, justice, welfare and equality – need to be re-created on the ground, ensuring that those fundamentals are not compromised in any way.
To conclude, this is not about middle class kids fighting for their own baggy pockets; this is about raising the issue of inequality; this is about resisting dominant and reductive models of economic, sociological, political and legal interactions, through form and content, and practice and ideas. Most importantly, this is about reconnecting a thread of our social fabric which capitalism, and especially its latest neoliberal phase, like a pestilent rat, systematically and ruthlessly gnaws at. The proof is here, in these few words left on Tuesday, February 19th on the facebook group page:
“Hi guys ! I just wanted to say a huge ‘thank you’ for your actions and support – not only during the occupation but generally too. Thanks to you the ‘divide-and conquer’ tactics of a few in the administration are floundering because now we no longer seem alone. The growing fear that our feelings of community were somehow outdated and of no regard or import to anyone has proven to be unfounded. We feel appreciated by you – our real ‘customers’. Despite the spin by the VC, windows on campus are now beginning to reflect the true opposition from the silent majority with the yellow flyers of support, so please continue to promote those and hang in there for as long as you can. Thank you so very much once again. A grateful member of YOUR staff. From a member of the 235”
For once at least, the slogan might become practice: that together, united, we shall not be defeated.
 The VCEG (Vice-Chancellor Executive Group) is composed of 7 senior managerial posts, including the Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing, the Registrar John Duffy, and Director of Human Resources Jane Summerville, who have been at the forefront of the outsourcing. Most, if not all, of the VCEG are on 6 figure salaries, with the VC on £227,000 per annum.
 Apparently, UCL refused SPRU, who have now negotiated their place in the campus’s brand new Jubilee Building.