Sat 16 Feb, 2013

Yesterday, on a bright winter afternoon, I visited the student occupation at the University of Sussex, Falmer campus. This is a last resort protest against Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing’s plan to privatise university services. Discussions, petitions, demonstrations and boycotts have all been ignored. Clearly Farthing is rattled by this occupation. Security guards with dark glasses swarm all over Bramber House. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a Tarantino movie set rather than a place of study. Despite this, nine days into the occupation of Bramber’s Terrace Room, the mood among students was buoyant, determined. Now that there is media interest, visitors and food have been allowed in during the day and, thankfully, the heating is back on. Talks and planning meetings go on daily. Visiting supporters have included Satish Kumar, MP Caroline Lucas, Will Self, Mark Steel and various lecturers from Sussex and other universities. Even Noam Chomsky plans to link up with them via Skype. This protest is getting international support. Hardly surprising, this is a global issue that goes beyond Sussex.

While at the occupation, I listened to Prof. Gurminder Bhambra from the University of Warwick talk about the origins of the university, built in the 1960s. Back then, she informed us, there were no formal paths between the buildings, it was left to students to forge their own tracks, a physical imprint of their journeys around campus. She used this story as a lovely metaphor to illustrate how students also determined their own educational paths. Nowadays, sadly, the university curriculum is influenced by more commercial interests.

The protest is against plans to sell-off the catering and estate management services. No doubt the thin end of the wedge. Students and staff oppose this but Farthing is pushing ahead none-the-less, ignoring all other options. Some 235 employees are to be transferred to private companies this summer. According to students, no clear explanation as to why has been given, other than a vague nod to expansion plans. Many in our community earn their livelihoods at Sussex University. Of course we know that outsourcing usually means fewer jobs and worse terms and conditions for staff. Although these are supposed to be protected under TUPE regulations, there are plenty of examples where companies change staff terms and conditions after transfer if they can find economic, technological or organisational reasons for doing so. Privatisation is not benign, outsourcing services transfers ownership and control over universities from public to private hands. It takes local jobs away and it’s bad for our community. In an economy of small businesses, it’s deeply worrying that such a significant, local employer is determined to press ahead with these plans, regardless of opposition. For that reason, we must support this protest. Standing up for one another, like the students have so brilliantly demonstrated, is what makes communities strong.

When leaving, I was moved by the number of yellow cards in the windows of staff offices and student accommodation – a visible indication of the widespread support for the protest. Many of the people I passed on campus wore a solidarity badge too, a square, yellow patch of material. The paths at Sussex University are now paved over of course, although I noted the odd beaten track along the grass. This gives me hope that the future of education needn’t be set in stone. I’m greatly inspired by the students and staff who, despite ongoing intimidation by management, are striving against its privatisation.

I write this to highlight what is happening and to ask you to support this protest. The protest statement “calls on the management of the University to immediately halt their plans; to undertake a full and proper democratic negotiation with staff and students about the future of campus services; and to ensure that student and trade union representatives are fully represented and informed during all stages of future processes and decision making.”

You can send your name (and position if representing an organisation) to and/or tweet @occupy_sussex to add your support. If you visit the occupation, donations of food, tea, coffee etc. will be welcome I’m sure. Above all, tell other people and wear a yellow badge in support.

Check updates on their Facebook page

Ali Ghanimi (Organiser, Free University Brighton)

Sussex University occupation