In certain circles, there is the perception that the transformation to the ideal of the student as consumer is complete and that therefore the student activist and a radical student movement is a thing of the past. Although there was the anti-fees flashpoint in 2010, the argument goes, now the modern student is more concerned with getting their money’s worth from the education they directly pay for, than they are about changing the world.
Over the last four years there have been countless examples of campaigns that prove this thesis wrong. This series of articles seeks to explore those campaigns, what they have achieved and what they mean for the student movement and the Higher Education sector as a whole.
by Chris Jarvis
In February 2013, students at the University of Sussex occupied a University building, as part of a campaign against the mass outsourcing of large chunks of the University’s operation. Privatising maintenance, catering and security among other functions put the employment of 235 members of staff at the University at risk as well as changing the narrative of what those services existed for. Rather than being run for their own sake, they would instead be run for profit. The plans, when announced a year previously, were done so with no meaningful consultation with either staff or students.
The Occupy Sussex campaign spun out of the existing resistance against the planned privatisation. Through a diversity of tactics the movement galvanised support first across the Sussex campus, and then across the country. For over 50 days, University buildings remained under occupation and high profile supporters gathered in number, including the local Green MP Caroline Lucas, comedian Mark Steele and countless academics at the institution itself. More importantly though, the support came from nationwide in the form of a national demonstration of over 1,000 students which took over the campus in March 2013.
From start to finish, the movement against privatisation at Sussex stood for the collective against the notion of the individual
At its core, Occupy Sussex was fundamentally about solidarity. Initially, it was solidarity of staff and students – the occupation was in response to privatisation, partially on principle, but additionally to stand side by side with those staff who would be effected by its ramifications. Extending this, the Quebec inspired yellow squares that littered campus windows and students’ clothes promoted the widespread support for the aims of the campaign. And finally, the subsequent campaign that emerged against the suspension of five students who had participated in the occupation, was in the exact same vein. From start to finish, the movement against privatisation at Sussex stood for the collective against the notion of the individual. It stood for staff and students standing together against a right wing University management and for people across the country rallying against the crackdown on student activism.
The importance of Occupy Sussex and the following campaign to free the ‘Sussex 5’ goes across the country. Students on campuses elsewhere, inspired by the movement, developed and built further radical activism. When student activists at the University of Birmingham were suspended, again a solidarity campaign emerged for them to be reinstated. A Pop-Up, grassroots Union was formed for the staff affected, which could pave the path for future labour organising outside of the bloated bureaucracies of many of our major Trade Unions.
the harder it is to get away with, the fewer instances we will see of overpaid University management making crass decisions
But further, Occupy Sussex makes privatisation on that campus and elsewhere more difficult. The length and scale of the resistance and the concurrent barrage of negative publicity the University of Sussex received for its actions in suspending student activists and banning protests on the campus, means that University decision makers now have a lot to be up against if they take a similar course of action. And that is why it is important that the fight fought by Sussex is fought everywhere that course closures, redundancies or service outsourcing takes place.
Because the harder it is to get away with, the fewer instances we will see of overpaid University management making crass decisions that are against the interests of students and workers, and the closer we get to a movement that shifts from being on the defensive that fights against, and towards a movement that is on the offensive, fighting for a fair and democratic education system on individual campuses and across the country. Rather than students occupying and demonstrating against cuts and against privatisation, we get closer to students organising, in coalition with staff, for an education system that is fair, democratic and run in the interests of those who make it up – instead of the artificially constructed class of six-figure Registrars and Pro-Vice Chancellors who currently run it.