The Sussex Five and the privatization of Britain’s universities

This is a guest post from Gabriel Raeburn. Gabriel studies Politics and American History at the University of Sussex. He is a Labour Party activist and is an active critic of the continued marketization of education. He tweets @gabrielraeburn.

Three years ago, as British students protested in their thousands against the rise in tuition fees, many asked “where did all the apathy go?” After that initial burst of collective energy and anger, sadly some of the apathy did return. Yet, the last few months have seen the return of the student movement as a radical force in British politics. Last week saw over eight British universities under occupation, forty-one arrests in two days in London and the return of heavy-handed police brutality against student protesters.

Arguably the most drastic reaction to the student movement was at the University of Sussex where management, led by the Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing and Registrar John Duffy, callously suspended the studies and excluded from campus five students involved in peaceful occupation of university facilities.

In February 2013, students involved in the University of Sussex’s anti-privatisation movement occupied Bramber House’s conference hall on university property. This was in solidarity with 235 campus employees who were having their jobs outsourced to the private catering company Chartwells. Occupy Sussex highlighted both the continued marketization of higher education and the undemocratic nature of British universities. The movement gained support from a range of politicians as well as the academic Noam Chomsky, the novelist Will Self, and the comedian Mark Steel.

On the evening of the 27th November 2013, students reoccupied an entire floor of Bramber House as a result of management’s continued privatization of university services and marketization of higher education. It also stated support of strike action called by UCU, Unite and Unison on the 3rd of December over fair pay and gender pay inequality in government institutions. On the day of the strike, Occupy Sussex peacefully left the occupation to stand in solidity with their lecturers and workers on picket lines. The following day management banned five students involved in the anti-privatization movement from entering campus and indefinitely suspended their studies. The Vice-Chancellor claimed the charge was “disruptive and intimidating behaviour.”

The suspension of the five students, collectively known as the “Sussex Five” or “Farthings Five”, represents a disturbing trend in British universities. The claim of “disruptive and intimidating behaviour” is, in this case, without factual basis.

The university was once seen as a key institution for education, democratisation and debate. Farthing and Duffy have distorted this image. They have turned Sussex from an institution of education to a profit-orientated business. They have instigated a top down agenda with no accountability. And as for debate, the message is clear; if you challenge management policy, you will be removed. Students are scared and intimidated, and why wouldn’t you be? If I speak out, I may be suspended. The slogan that “we are all the Sussex Five” is clearly not just a stand of solidarity but an obvious notion that students feel that this could happen to them.

Sussex’s battle may appear as a small case of five students indefinitely suspended from their studies, but the issue is clearly much larger than that. It is a battle over both the right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest, and unaccountable university management power. The response to the Sussex Five has been remarkable and swift. The day following the suspensions, 500 students marched on Sussex House where management resides, demanding their immediate reinstatement.

Similar numbers marched the following day. An Early Day Motion (EDM) was put forward in Parliament by the Labour MP John McDonnell. An online petition reached over 9,000 signatures. A letter signed by over 200 staff members, including many senior lecturers, condemned the Vice-Chancellor’s actions in the “strongest terms,” while a statement demanding the immediate reinstatement of the Sussex Five was signed by over two dozen societies. An Emergency Members Meeting (EMM), which over 600 students attended, passed a vote of no confidence in management and called for unprecedented student strike action of Tuesday 10th December in solidarity.

Within hours of the EMM, management drastically backtracked and declared the reinstatement of the five students, but claimed it would continue to press charges. This was in part due to the continued and sustained pressure of faculty and students, and the fear of continued peaceful chaos on campus.

This should be seen as a victory for democracy and for freedom of speech. But it is only a small victory in a much larger debate. The university is first and foremost an arena to foster debate and challenge conventional wisdom without the threat of persecution. If it is to be a democratic institution then management must be accountable to someone. The continued struggle over the Sussex Five will determine what type of institution Sussex wishes to become.

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