A year of struggle at Sussex uni

A round-up of the political activity on the Sussex uni campus in the 2005/6 academic year.

Submitted by Ed on November 2, 2006

The 2005/6 academic year was definitely an interesting one for both students and staff at Sussex. The usual excessive drinking and falling over of freshers (which this writer was partial to) was also matched by an upsurge in political activity. The SortUSOut campaign, the battle to save chemistry and the lecturers’ pay dispute all had a massive effect on the political climate at Sussex and so probably deserve a closer look.

The SortUSOut campaign got going last year following a vote of no-confidence at the student union’s AGM and over 1,300 students signed the petition backing the motion. However, as the year wore on, the campaign became more militant. Firstly, to protest the ridiculously early closing time of the library (9:30pm: hardly handy for those last minute essay rushes!), over 100 students occupied it, holding talks, film showings, workshops as well as just using the library to finish work they’d needed to do. This was done the day after, and in complete support of, a national strike by academics and related staff (more information below).

This was followed a few months later by another occupation of part of the Sussex Innovation Centre, the prime representation of the corporate interests who are ruining our education. In response, the university’s senior management shut down all public buildings, including the library and the computer rooms, only a week before dissertation deadlines proving (if proof were needed) that management care more about profit and the interests of big business than our education. The occupiers were also threatened with legal action, which due to the solidarity of those involved and the spinelessness of those opposed, has since come to nothing. We have, however, seen the start of termly meetings between the union and the senior management to discuss everything from food provision to contact hours. Talks also continue on renovating Mandela Hall for entertainments. A vast improvement on the wall of silence students were often met with last year.

Independently of SortUSOut, the chemists had their own struggle as management tried to cut the entire chemistry course. Both staff and students came out immediately in opposition to this move, holding demonstrations and collecting signatures of support. The speed of this reaction obviously took the vice-chancellor by surprise as not only was this plan reversed and chemistry saved (with Nobel Prize winning alumni returning to teach at Sussex), but the VC seemed to lose his short-term memory, leading him to claim to have saved chemistry when it was his plan to cut it in the first place!

Our lecturers were also keen to get in on the action, fighting their pay campaign throughout the last academic year alongside other academic staff throughout the country. After taking strike action and boycotting all marking, they managed to secure for themselves a 13% pay rise over the next three years. This was a much more contentious issue amongst students due to scares we wouldn’t graduate. However, this can only be blamed on the irresponsible actions of the university authorities who see fit to give themselves massive pay rises every year. Essentially, academic staff took inustrial action for the same reason we occupied the library: because our university is being run for profit at the expense of those who live, work and study here.

The last year of uni at Sussex saw a lot of different groups taking direct action to defend or improve their current conditions. In some cases we succeeded, others are still in the process of negotiation. But we didn’t get here through negotiation alone and we need to keep up the pressure. If you have a problem, don’t assume that’s just the way things are and don’t assume you’re the only one affected. By taking action and standing together we can solve the problems that affect our lives at uni. That’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed since last year.

Written for the SortUSOut campaign newsletter