Some of the Sussex occupiers. Photo: Jenny Nelson
A long running battle against privatisation at the University of Sussex has erupted into a series of mass demonstrations and a student-led occupation which is now entering its third week – much to the chagrin of a management who wish to push their plans through against the wishes of staff and students.
If the question ‘what is higher education for’ was posed to the general population, the obvious answer would of course be that ‘education’ is to educate people. The reality of the situation in higher education however is increasingly malignant. The clammy hand of the free market is tightening its already expansive grip on universities. The education we receive is designed only to produce the next generation of skilled workers, administrators and functionaries needed by the economy.
This relationship between the education sector and the market was sharpened following the Browne review, commissioned under New Labour then happily adopted by the new Tory-Liberal administration. The 100 per cent cuts announced in this report to arts, humanities and social science courses are a statement of intent. The logic of this move is simple – these subjects aren’t making anyone money. They may be educating people, they may be fulfilling, they may serve society, but the returns for research into military technology and new shampoo formulas are far greater.
The second major aspect of the marketisation of higher education is the transformation of areas of universities into profit-generating enterprises. Previously, surplus money entering the education sector would be ploughed back in improving services for future generations. Now in privatised areas surplus money is nothing more than profit to be siphoned off into the bank accounts of shareholders and CEOs.
The University of Sussex is a pioneer in this process, and the usual arguments for privatisation are being wheeled out. Justifications for this process at Sussex fly out in a flurry of management newspeak: ‘expertise’ is needed, not that of the 235 workers who currently keep non-academic services running but the expertise of private contractors. Their profit-driven brilliance was best showcased in the harsh light of the London 2012 Olympics, where private security firm G4S proved so inadequate in its field of ‘expertise’ that the army was brought in.
The Olympics were of course a success for G4S – they won the contract, and they made the profits despite having to refund the games committee £70 million for their extensive list of failures. The privatisation of services at Sussex will undoubtedly make a few people a lot of money, but for those being transferred to a private company the story will be much the same as with other privatised industries. It will mean more ‘labour market flexibility’, ie. less job security, worse pensions and worse terms and conditions at work. Those of us who use the services will find ourselves at the mercy of companies well aware of their position as sole service providers in a campus university. The result will be cost cutting, price rises and fewer jobs, the proceeds falling unsurprisingly into the pockets of shareholders.
The Sussex occupation has struck a chord with students here, who have been unusually quiet since the student movement of 2010. And the occupiers’ tech-savvy campaign has also drawn the support of public figures such as Noam Chomsky, John McDonnell and the active involvement of others such as Will Self, Mark Steel, Caroline Lucas, Laurie Penny and Owen Jones.
When the going gets tough Sussex can always live up to its radical image. We have taken a lead from the victorious students in Quebec who recently overturned a rise in tuition fees, and we have appropriated their practice of wearing yellow felt squares on our jackets (a red square is the symbol of opposition among Quebecois students). As we look to Quebec, university administrations around the country will be looking our way to see both the reaction to the process and the end results. For this reason it is important that Sussex wins because we are of course only three years in to the current government’s term, Tories and privatisation going together like open sewers and cholera.
The nature of the privatisation process, with decisions made unilaterally by a small management team of seven over the heads of staff and students who number in their thousands, has sharpened an already abundant animosity in particular against vice chancellor Michael Farthing. He earns £225,000 pounds a year for coming into work sometimes as little as three days a week.
This is not simply an issue of public ownership, it is an issue of public control and democratic decision-making, calling for a degree of control over how our university is run. The issues now confronting campaigners are questions around maintaining maximum support and involvement from the campus community while taking action that directly impinges on university management’s ability to run the university as they desire. They who are used to total control in the university environment are shaken by a mass democratic movement which contrasts sharply with the closed boardroom tactics exposed most poignantly when a copy of ‘how to bluff your way in management’ was found in the management suite of Sussex House during a previous occupation.
Our fight continues. We are running a marathon not a sprint. Yet this is a race we not only intend to win but feel we must, to give hope to those fighting marketisation and privatisation in the schools, hospitals and universities that are under attack across the country and internationally.