Commentary on the Sussex not for Sale campaign at Sussex University

ENS mass meeting at Sussex university, 2008

Critical article on the 2008 Sussex Not For Sale campaign at the University of Sussex, written by an active member of the campaign.

Higher education is going through significant transformations on an international, or at least European, level. The UK is not immune to these changes. Whilst there have been various small protests in places around the country to resist these changes, no major local campaign has existed as of yet. Sussex not 4 Sale was born out of this context.

Higher education is going through significant transformations on an international, or at least European, level. The UK is not immune to these changes. Whilst there have been various small protests in places around the country to resist these changes, no major local campaign has existed as of yet. There is a national campaign group, ENS (Education not for Sale), which is part of the NUS (National Union of Students). It aims to address the issues affecting higher education, but it remains largely impotent: the conferences are attended by activists, but the base is missing. There is no mass base at various universities that could come together through the national network. Sussex not 4 Sale was born out of this context.

The campaign originated as a discussion group amongst members of staff (at this point only faculty) and some students, with meetings consisting of roughly 15 people and taking place once a week for one hour. It soon became clear that most staff felt worried about the changes that have continually been imposed on higher education from national government. These changes included education fees, top up fees, but also new productivity assessments like the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise 1). Furthermore, it also became clear that the new senior management of the University of Sussex wanted to push through large-scale reforms regarding the structure of the university. Sussex not 4 Sale found itself in a difficult situation: the consultation documents for the proposed changes would be ratified by the end of term, and we found ourselves in week 3 - that gave us 6 weeks to organise opposition. Whilst there was enthusiasm from both staff and students, staff were busy with their everyday work and students are notoriously unreliable. Furthermore the meetings were unstructured. They consisted of a facilitator and a minute-taker, but no decision making process was agreed upon and the group (by now consisting of 20 people and it grew every week we met), had to micro-manage due to a lack of organisation. This meant that valuable time of our weekly meeting was taken up by designing fliers for instance.

A member of the discussion group offered to set up a wiki-like website, which greatly helped us to publicise our efforts and events. Myself and some other members of the campaign proposed a structure in which the first 45 minutes of our meetings would be used to discuss our situation and the last 15 minutes were used to make decisions and to delegate people. The group also agreed to create two sub-groups, communications and research, whilst it rejected our third proposal, a strategy sub-group. From now on activities would be delegated to those two sub-groups which would meet separately to micro-manage the decisions. The meetings were open and announced on the mailing list.

Through this mechanism we were able to advertise what was now fast turning into a campaign to oppose local restructuring. By week 6 the discussion group had over 40 participants, and several articles had been published in the student newspaper. Mainstream media had also started to show interest. The research group had started to collate information on the proposed changes. We came to realise that they essentially consisted in a total restructuring of university organisation.

Proposed Changes:
University hierarchy - a danger to university democracy:
At present the hierarchy consists in senior management passing decisions to heads of the 5 schools, who would pass these on to heads of the 20 or so departments. The heads of department are rotated on a yearly basis, which means that they are academics who take a break from their research to be a head of department. Furthermore, in the more egalitarian departments, departmental meetings are essentially grass-roots faculty assemblies, thus forming a point of workers' self-determination on the lowest level.

The proposed hierarchy would eliminate the schools, replace them with 3 faculties and use super-departments, now called schools, as the main organisational unit. These departments would consist of at least 25 members of faculty (the vast majority of departments at Sussex have far less than 25 members of faculty). In the best case scenarios, various departments merge across subject area to form these super-departments; in the worst case, these mergers serve as an excuse to cut degrees. Furthermore, the heads of these super-departments would be assigned on a six year basis, essentially eliminating the rotational basis of the present system: an academic can't take a break from research for six years. The new heads of department would be professional managers or academics wanting to become managers. It is clear that this would eliminate the grass-roots power of faculty at the moment: managers have a direct interest in serving senior management's agenda to further their own career. Rotating heads of department on the other hand have an interest in ensuring good working conditions for academics: they will return to be one in a year's time.

Research and teaching themes - a danger to academic autonomy:
Senior management wanted to introduce 5 research and 5 teaching themes across the university. There were several contentions to this proposal, the first of which was that it was not clear what the aim of these themes was. Senior management persisted in contributing confusing and confused facts about them: on the one hand they were to encompass all (or most) of the activity of academics on campus, on the other they were merely networking opportunities for academics. On the one hand they'd be the prime organising principle according to which funding was requested from national bodies, on the other they were mere networking opportunities that could provide assistance in applying for this funding. Whatever the case, a quarter of a million pounds would be allocated to each theme. That's a lot of money that would have to come from somewhere else for what seems to be very badly thought out plans. The second to the proposed introduction of themes is concerns the process of selection of those themes. Senior management started by suggesting 5 themselves. Later, after pressure, academics were allowed to submit their own contributions. From the beginning, a research theme called security was pushed by Vice-Chancellor Joanne Wright. She is also said to be behind the teaching theme called international security. These two themes seem particularly outrageous to both academic staff and students, given that it seemed to come from an approach uncritical of the government's war on terror 2

A focus on market driven sources of income:
There has been a significant trend to move higher education from a public service based model to a market based model. The introduction of tuition and top-up fees were subtle signs of this, the possibility for private companies to now extend officially recognised degrees as part of their internal education courses is a clear sign. As a result, universities turn to state independent ways of funding themselves. The largest source of income is research funding. The second largest are international students, who have to pay more than 3 times the fees that European students have to pay. This racist policy means that, generally, the only foreign students who get a chance to study here have to be extremely well off. It also means that universities are shifting their emphasis onto the international market. At Sussex it was decided that the best way to do this would be through the 'expansion of the business school'. Sussex has virtually no business school, and in its creation would have to fight the reputation of LSE and other longstanding business schools. This argument is generally opposed by those who are uncritical towards the others: it just doesn't make sense!

The mass campaign
As confusion about the problems we faced was replaced with determination, we set ourselves a deadline of organising a mass meeting in week 7. The aim of this mass meeting was to give attending people an overview of the issues at stake and to further build the resistance against senior management's plans. The mass meeting attracted over 250 students and members of staff (again mostly faculty). It was a resounding success. At that meeting, after initial confusion over the decision-making structure, it was pretty much unanimously decided that that mass-meeting would be the new organising body of the campaign. It also decided that a decision-making structure and organisation should be proposed at the next week, that demands of the campaign should be formulated for discussion and that there should be a demonstration on campus in week 9.

Whilst the 3 mass-meetings following the first one were all attended by over 200 people, the excited and determined spirit of the first meeting quickly subsided. There was no structure to the meetings, which meant that they dragged on and went in circles. Only from the 3rd meeting onwards were facilitators and minute takers appointed at the meeting. The agenda was determined by a separate group outside the mass-meetings. The second meeting took over 3 hours, largely due to a prolonged discussion over the demands, during which delegates from an independent associate tutors group (who were taking actions against their pay cut) walked out because the (largely student dominated) meeting decided that the associate tutors should leave the negotiations to the union (who had sold them out in the first place).

Nonetheless, the campaign rally in week 9 was the largest rally Sussex had seen in 20 years. There was a further rally outside of senate, where the consultation documents would be discussed. This one too attracted a large crowd. By the end of term it was also clear that many members of staff and faculty opposed the proposed changes: over 75 members of faculty signed a letter of protest.

The mass campaign found itself torn at the center: on the one hand, the struggle was important, and it was recognised as such by the university community, as can be seen by the enormous participation in the campaign. On the other hand the campaign was trapped in its own disorganisation and bureaucratic inefficiency. What caused this?

At Sussex we find ourselves in a strange situation: in most other UK universities, if the left is a force, it is dominated by statists: various trotskyist or leninist groups. Sussex's left is dominated by anarchists. This is a mixed blessing. Whilst it is true that we do not have to worry about left groups parachuting into campaigns to recruit members for their respective parties, the anarchist left has consistently failed to engage in consciousness-raising and public discussion. The result is that many students feel sympathetic to left-anarchist perspectives, but that many self-proclaimed anarchists have little idea of what anarchism, and specifically anarcho-communism is. Most tend to the extreme individualist perspective and a large part of their politics consists in knee-jerk reactions against all that is perceived by them as organised, bureaucratic and authoritarian. There is little awareness of organisational principles. The result is that ironically, the mass campaign was persistently lead by a selected group of self-defined anarchists, who decided how to best proceed. The mass-meeting was reduced to a rubber-stamping body and was at best used as leverage against senior management as opposed to being a community council directing and controlling struggle. This was early on recognised by individuals in the first mass-meeting demanding that votes should be taken and delegates called. It became more apparent to people in the following weeks, when, in informal discussions after the meetings, students confided that they thought the meetings were badly organised and demotivating.

One of the main causes of this centralisation of power was the continuing authority exercised by the smaller discussion group. Whilst the mass-meeting had decided that it should be the sovereign body, it had not discussed and passed an appropriate structure. The smaller discussion group, necessarily only representing a small perspective of the mass meeting, and necessarily consisting mostly of people willing to go to two organisational meetings a week (mostly said anarchist activists), convinced itself that the mass-meeting was no place for decision-making. It would become too formulaic, too bureaucratic, too authoritarian. At the next mass-meeting, members of this discussion group blocked the discussion of a transparent structure that should help to organise the campaign. From now on the small discussion group, consisting mostly of anti-organisational individualist anarchists, determined agenda, content and strategy of the campaign. Decisions made by the mass-meeting were discussed into oblivion by the discussion meeting, necessarily only representing a limited perspective; organising activity, because of the intransparent nature of the campaign and the lack of formal delegation either couldn't happen, or, to the extent that it did happen, had to be carried out by a few 'volunteers' (or hard-core activists who, understandably, started to complain that they were doing too much).

Whilst a solid, democratic and transparent structure would certainly not have been perfect, it would have allowed anyone attending these meetings to participate in the campaign. And it is this, the building of everyday confidence in collective organisation and struggle, more than anything else, that has to be the role of anarchist/libertarian communist contributions to mass campaigns. As soon as we believe that we are better suited to lead a campaign and hence as soon as we start seeing mass community/workers councils as tools in our campaigns for human emancipation, instead of as ends in themselves, human emancipation becomes an empty phrase: at that point namely, like all political parties and leaders, we are furthering nothing but our own particular interests.

Where now?
Whilst the (hardcore) of campaigners have decided that they should call another mass meeting I remain pessimistic over the future of the campaign. Whilst the campaigners assessment is right - there remains a lot to be struggled for, the fight here at Sussex is certainly not over - I believe this campaign is close to dying. Unless the campaign can transform itself dramatically, by adopting clear and transparent democratic structures, it is likely that this campaign will end like all previous ones: with paid students' union officials dragging the campaigns' rotting corpse around trying to push senior management into reforms that are badly needed, whilst appealing to apathetic students to take part.

This would be a shame, given the positive steps undertaken by the campaign as a mass movement. After all, it has already, to a certain extent, broken out of the strangle-hold of activist campaigning and aimed from the very beginning to transcend the particular interests of one sector of the working class as students. Finally it has also, if we dare to be hopeful about the future, now taken steps to put its faith in mass-assemblies of a community/workplace nature. All these points already, whatever else will happen, make the campaign invariably superior over all its predecessors.

  • 1. A review through which funding is allocated to universities on the basis of the publishing work (original research) that their faculty have done
  • 2. Joanne Wright is on the board of advisors for the Homeland Security Management Institute at Long Island University (which is a leading institution for homeland security training).
    Info about her research interests