What Sussex is losing...

Gurminder Bhambra supports the students and staff contesting the hollowing-out of the University of Sussex’s collegial ideals

Source: Paul Bateman

The University of Sussex’s plans to outsource its estates and catering staff has resulted in a wave of student protests in recent months.

For many, the proposals represent a hollowing-out of the idea of community that has been at the heart of the institution since it was established in the 1960s.

The long-running campaign has involved a 55-day student occupation of part of the university’s conference centre and a national demonstration on campus, and it has gathered the support of many staff. In the wake of the demonstration, the university secured an eviction order against the occupiers of the conference centre and a High Court injunction against all unauthorised protest. The eviction and criminalisation of students involved in civil disobedience against policies with which they and many others fundamentally disagree is contiguous with other attacks that undermine our public university system. But despite the barriers put in their way, the ever-creative students at Sussex continue to find new ways to give voice to the broader movements of dissent.

Debate, dialogue and critical enquiry have been central to the distinctive identity of Sussex ever since it was established during the era of the 1963 Robbins report. This remained the case in the early 2000s, with the sanctioned teach-ins that occurred as a consequence of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. In spite of the sector-wide spread of the audit culture, debate was not seen as getting in the way of the business of the university; debates were the business of the university, and senior academics and managers actively participated in them.

This is in stark contrast to today’s situation where all official Sussex comment is provided by the registrar, and the vice-chancellor is strangely absent from all dialogue despite being repeatedly invited to engage. The managerial response undercuts the role of the vice-chancellor as steward of the idea of the university and transforms a collegial institution into a corporate one.

The outsourcing of non-academic jobs is an intensification of the marketisation of the sector, a model that sees students simply as consumers and academics as representatives of the university brand. From this viewpoint, libraries, catering, e-learning and estates management are deemed not to be “core business”; they are viewed as non-essential to the integrity of the university and the community that Robbins placed at its heart. Of course, Universities UK’s 2011 report on efficiency and effectiveness in UK higher education looks forward to extending this outsourcing process to “core” academic activities.

What is sought are “efficiencies”, some of which feed into senior managers’ ever more disproportionate pay packets, and which are achieved by attacking the working conditions and incomes of the lower-paid staff delivering these services. Even if present staff’s pay and conditions are maintained, there is no guarantee that the conditions of new staff would be similarly protected. In this way, the university’s actions are part of the wider move towards neoliberalism that is turning Britain into one of the most unequal countries in the West.

Marketisation further disembeds universities from their local communities as they reorient towards the international. The introduction of £9,000 fees, for example, is part of the process of pricing poorer local communities out of access to higher education. For all the talk of cosmopolitanism, the only diversity that university managers seem to be interested in is the payment by a global elite of high international fees in dollars, yen and rupees.

Sussex once had its own distinctive place within the diverse public university system that the Robbins report promoted. What is striking now is the similarity of universities in their pursuit of the market. Perhaps it is no great surprise to find the university represented by its “company secretary” while the vice-chancellor remains mute.

A former senior colleague from Sussex once told me: “There is a great distinction between doing as best you can the things you really value, against the constraints of the market, and being wholly driven by the market because you have no countervailing values.”

Do we wish our lives to be subsumed to the market, or can our values form a basis for regulating that market? The public university should be at the centre of this debate, and Sussex students are leading the defence of the values that once guided and sustained the sector.

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