The sit-in at Sussex University in protest against the planned outsourcing of 235 campus jobs is now into its third week, with hundreds of students and staff holding demonstrations every couple of days. Being Sussex University, those demonstrations look a bit like sunrise at Stone Circle on the last morning of Glastonbury – all bongos, patchwork skirts, chants and the banging of pots and pans, because aggressively beating kitchenware is the only foolproof method of getting university management to hear your message.
The 235 jobs stood to be lost include catering, cleaning, security and porter positions, which is devastating enough for the people potentially losing their livelihoods, but the plans to further privatise the university seem to be what's pissing off protesters the most. Besides occupying a conference centre on campus and holding demonstrations in support of those who might lose their jobs, students have also been flooding management's phone lines and emails to make administrative work close to impossible.
Because some aggrieved lefty students making phone calls are clearly a violent threat, private security firms have had a constant presence on campus since the occupation started and, after initially bringing in dog units, they continue to surround the occupied building, police demonstrations and block access to the building at night. “This is a test of stamina and resources for both sides. It’s a waiting game,” said 22-year-old demonstrator, Susanna.
There's a saying that's been used to describe the last few years of student protest: "Up like a rocket and down like a stick," alluding to the fact that student demos have a tendency to sporadically burst into activity before quickly plummeting down into stagnation. The Sussex management are undoubtedly hoping that proverb rings true again, but they shouldn't hold their breath, because protesters seem determined to stick it out this time.
In fact, so far it's the management coming out of the situation the worst, which isn't exactly surprising considering they're planning on cutting a couple of hundred jobs while they walk away with six figure salaries at the end of every year (Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing earns close to £240,000 a year).
National media coverage and support for the demonstrations from public figures like Will Self, Noam Chomsky and Ken Loach have further promoted the situation and left management uncomfortably vulnerable. “It’s their Achilles' heel – they’ve been grooming a glossy commercialised Sussex image and we’re disrupting it to show that this management is incapable of running the institution democratically and efficiently,” said one international relations student who didn't want to be named.
Sussex Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing has defended the privatisation proposals as a necessary reshaping of services in order to deal with the expected high growth of student numbers. However, staff and students remain unconvinced, claiming that services will deteriorate and that outsourced workers will be left with poorer working conditions and worse pensions.
“The management’s idea of the student experience is that you get to choose between a flat white and a long black. They overlook the crucial conversations and relationships between student, staff and academics,” said 21-year-old demonstrator Lucy Freedman. For the time being, the nationwide marketisation of higher education appears to be far from an uncontested process at Sussex.
During the campaign, workers and students have reportedly been intimidated in an effort to divide and deter people from joining. The university management have threatened the Student Union with financial penalties for losses incurred during the occupation, a catering manager apparently ripped up a petition in front of staff and workers have been forced to remove signs of support for the movement. Despite this, “the movement is going from strength to strength. A community is building here; messages of support, stickers and posters are out on display across staff rooms and windows” said 19-year-old occupier, Michael Segalov.
After the tuition fees fiasco, radical student politics appeared close to extinction, but in Sussex's case the dinosaur seems to be spluttering back to life. And sitting in on day to day organisational meetings, you notice an absence of the traditional left sectarianism and cliches that were fast turning student movements into a parody of themselves. Horizontal, determined and self-organised working groups are the tattoo mark of this movement.
Unlike the tuition fees protests, this movement isn’t about young people looking to save some money, but a demonstration of solidarity for some of the most marginalised and poorly paid workers on campus. However, students are desperately aware that staff need to be emboldened enough to join in numbers if the campaign is to make any headway – something the workers who stand to lose their jobs are relying on. As one wrote on the occupation's blog, "For the first time since I was told my job was going to be outsourced (told, not consulted) I actually felt there was some hope that this privatisation can be stopped… Don’t stop till you’ve won."
Photos by Alon Aviram.
Other times students have protested about stuff: