An article on the situation in higher education generally and at Sussex University in particular.
Higher education is at the forefront of sweeping public sector cuts as the government looks to pass the costs of the economic crisis on to students and workers. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills which now oversees education have already confirmed at least £500m in cuts. Lord Mandleson, who heads the department has gone on record as saying that “much of the rest of the public sector will face similar constraints this year or soon after.”
But for now, education is the battleground. With the rich-poor divide now greater than the 1970s, many sense that the cuts are driven as much by pre-existing schemes for restructuring that simply use the recession as their pretext. Certainly, the absorption of education into Mandleson’s business-oriented super department suggests this, as does the fact that at several universities the restructuring plans predate the economic crisis they’re supposedly responding to.
But the cuts, restructuring and the very idea that the costs of the crisis should be borne by those who bear no responsibility for causing it are not going uncontested. While Mandleson and managements are planning year-on-year cutbacks, there is growing resistance from students and workers across the country…
Sussex University on the front line
Late last year management announced 115 redundancies at Sussex University as part of plans to cut £3m from this years budget and £5m from next years. Students and staff reacted with occupations and strike action and by the end of the Spring term there was a burgeoning mass movement on campus openly defying both university management and the High Court, who had granted an injunction banning “occupational protest”.
The first signs of student-worker unity were seen last December when a mass meeting of students and staff drew 300 people to listen to students and trade unionists talking about the cuts. After Christmas a student-led anti-cuts campaign began holding regular demonstrations. In February, one such demonstration led to a 24-hour occupation of a conference facility on campus that management use to generate income from external clients. The following month students further upped the stakes, occupying the Sussex House offices of the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group responsible for the cuts. During the occupation, word came through that a record 81% turnout for a UCU ballot, university staff had voted 76% in favour of strike action.
Sussex House was supposedly made impenetrable with two layers of security doors after previous student occupations. Management’s reaction was immediate. The University Registrar and Secretary John Duffy fabricated a hostage situation, providing the pretext for a heavy police presence equipped with dogs and riot gear. Police were caught on film carrying out unprovoked assaults on some of the 200 supporters who had gathered outside the occupation.
Seeing the escalating situation, the occupiers elected to leave on their own terms. However management weren’t finished. The Vice Chancellor personally singled out six students involved in the occupation and used a little-known executive power under University rules to suspend them immediately “without giving a reason.” They became known as the ‘Sussex Six’.
It also transpired that while the occupation was in progress, management were presenting a pack of lies to the High Court in order to get an injunction granted prohibiting “occupational protest.” Two of the more glaring fictions were John Duffy’s claims that the occupiers were “holding key members of the University’s staff hostage” and “causing significant damage to the University’s property.”
The actions of the police and management drew condemnation from staff and students. The UCU union unanimously passed a motion expressing “deep concern at the disproportionate response of management to the occupation of Sussex House” and calling for the lifting of the suspensions. Students responded by calling a mass demonstration that drew around 500 students and staff – double the size of recent demonstrations.
It was explained to the crowd that any occupation was now contempt of court and could lead to imprisonment. Hundreds of students then sprinted across campus ahead of security and occupied a large lecture theatre adjacent to the central library square. The demand of the occupation was a simple one: unconditional reinstatement of the Sussex Six.
Management continued to ignore the demands and over the course of 8 days students arranged a program of teach-ins, lectured, seminars, music and poetry. Many academic and support staff came and spoke to each other and to students. It is estimated at least 1000 people passed through the occupation during the week, all breaking the High Court injunction. There was not a police officer in sight.
On the eve of UCU’s one-day strike, students called an Emergency General Meeting of the Students Union to pass a motion of no confidence in University management. 850 students packed into the hall, with up to a hundred more turned away. The EGM voted near-unanimously in favour of the motion. Later that day the University Senate also called for the re-instatement of the suspended students.
The following day students joined UCU picket lines from 7am. In the early afternoon, it was confirmed that management had backed down and unconditionally re-instated the Sussex Six. The occupation ended - victorious.
Students and staff at Sussex have shown the power of direct action – in this case occupations and strikes – to pressure management into embarrassing u-turns. In itself, this is an example for students and education workers everywhere.
Having claimed victory in the opening skirmishes, the real battle to stop the cuts looms on the horizon. With students vowing to continue their campaign of occupations and more industrial action expected from staff, the student-worker movement is growing in power and confidence, and suddenly the ‘inevitable’ cuts at Sussex are looking far more beatable.
At the sharp end: Education workers speak out
Catalyst spoke to education workers across all grades throughout the country. In some instances the particular institution is not mentioned to protect the identity of the workers involved.
A clerical support worker
Voluntary redundancies are being sought in the School of Life Sciences, School of Social and International Studies, and Corporate Services. Vacant posts are not being filled and existing staff are expected to work harder. People are obviously afraid for their jobs. We are demoralised and angry, although there is no talk of resistance from the unions, who are just representing affected members on an individual basis rather than balloting members for industrial action.
A postgraduate research student
The pressure lecturers are under in face of coming cuts, especially with regards getting publications for the Research Assessment Exercise and its new version the Research Excellence Framework has meant that they are willing to cut corners to tick boxes, just to keep their jobs. In my own experience, they’ll attach their names to work they’ve not written an inch of if it’s by postgrad students, or even knowingly plagiarise work by their own students. Given the pressure the structures in place put them under, it definitely puts these practices in context. The coming cuts can only exacerbate this. The whole structure of HE and the fear workers are under threatens to undermine the integrity of academia altogether.’
At the University of Manchester management are preparing the ground for future cuts. “Team Briefing” are being circulated which hammer home the message that money is short and that there will be cutbacks. Vacancies have been frozen which means that already overworked staff have to take on extra duties. Among the manual grades, management have started to cut overtime and other enhancements. Basically, they are starting to cover out of hours work with private contractors. This means a massive cut in wages for manual workers who have traditionally depended on overtime to boost pay. And we know this is only the start. Unless action is taken to defend jobs, increasing numbers of manual jobs will be farmed out to the private sector.
In Leeds, the UCU has voted to suspend the proposed 3 days of strike action. The decision was taken after management lifted any immediate threats of cuts and agreed that in future they would go through agreed procedures before implementing cuts. They have also guaranteed that there will be no compulsory redundancies until 2011. It is disappointing that the strike was called off as the threats of cuts and redundancies has only been lifted with no guarantees that management will not attempt to implement them at a future date. On the plus the campaign has radicalised workers at Leeds and it has also strengthened workplace organisation. This may prove a decisive factor in opposing any future attempts by management to impose cuts at the university.
A support worker
We look after the audio-visual equipment in well over a hundred teaching rooms across campus. We barely have enough staff to cover the rooms at present, but one out of our group will be made redundant. Recently our administrator did a comparison with other universities’ A/V depts and we were very near the bottom of the staff/room ratio. A major part of our job is to fix problems as they occur in lecture theatres and seminar rooms with a very fast turnaround. If our team is cut, teaching may suffer if we do not have enough trained technicians to deal with problems immediately. A senior manager has come to us several times to ask what services we can drop. This seems to us to be a pretty disgusting way of using us to justify getting rid of one of us, so we constantly refuse to do it.
A research scientist
My contract is coming to an end soon and I’m waiting to hear if my boss gets his research grant renewed – but competition for funding is now worse than ever. The budget cuts in the next few years are going to be brutal: the elite labs, with the help of the ‘old boys network’ will make sure they keep most of the funding, the least competitive labs don’t stand a chance, and everybody in between will have to engage in a brutal struggle for survival. Of course the lab heads pass on all this pressure to us, who need to produce the scientific results for publications and grant proposals.
At Liverpool Hope people in one department were made to re-apply for their own jobs recently. Staff cuts followed. The union response was ineffectual - a lunch-time pavement protest (wouldn’t want to generate any real pressure to defend jobs, would we?).
At Salford, cuts have already been implemented as part of ‘Project Headroom’. A lot of posts were lost, but without official compulsory redundancies. There has also been substantial restructuring of central units in recent years (‘Deciding the Future/Realising Our Vision’) when all staff had to apply for new posts; this process is still not completed. As part of both processes staff ‘retired’ or took voluntary redundancy when it became clear there was no position for them - payouts were better for those who jumped. The offical line is ‘no future cuts’, but we await to see how evenly the government share out the announced cuts in teaching funding mechanism. As previously money for research will be distributed by a system not announced, using criteria that are not decided. Also it being an election year, medium term planning in HE is about guessing who will win and what they will do rather than what they say they will do.
Article taken from the Spring 2010 edition of Catalyst, the Solidarity Federation's free newspaper.