Monday, March 28, 2011

Another Education is Possible: An Account of the Struggle against Neo-liberal Restructuring at the University of Sussex

- Ryan Powell

The transformation of British Universities from places of learning and enquiry into supermarkets, where knowledge is a commodity; the production of which is driven by the needs of the market, has picked up pace in the past several years. For a long time universities in the UK were entirely state funded and free for all. Since then fees have been introduced in three phases. At the first stage the maximum any university could charge stood at 1000 Pounds. The second phase began in 2006 when the cap on tuition fees was raised by Tony Blair’s government to 3300 Pounds. We are currently entering what may well be the final phase where tuition fees will either go up to something around 7000 pounds or the cap on fees will be abolished completely allowing universities to charge as high a price as they can get away with. This will mean that universities will have to compete with each other for students and research funding. 

Governments across Europe have seized upon the opportunity provided by the financial crisis to slash public spending across the board. With the election of a Conservative/Liberal coalition (both party’s ideologically committed giving capital and the market free reign) in the UK the speed and depth of these cuts will exceed what was anticipated under Labour with higher education being hit particularly hard. Vice chancellors know what is coming; that universities will soon exist in a competitive market and so will have to be made profitable in order to survive. Instead of opposing this however VCs have jumped on the opportunity to make education a business and have begun to undertake the task of restructuring with gusto, cutting everything but their salaries.
The effects of restructuring universities to be profit driven will be disastrous for both academics and students and is a symptom of the process of subordination of social interests to those of the market which is the hall mark of neo-liberalism. 

The restructuring we face will severely limit academic freedom by insisting that research is profitable and teaching determined by the needs of the market. The result will be a sever limiting of the scope and depth of intellectual inquiry and will signal the end universities in Britain as places where academic knowledge and research is recognised to have inherent value. Students will suffer as the quality of their education is steadily eroded as degrees focus more and more on teaching marketable skills rather than independent and critical inquiry. However this will cease to be a concern for many as, with the further rising of fees, university education will cease to be a viable option for students from poorer backgrounds. Already, going to university means signing on to years of debt for the majority of students. With the anticipated increases this debt will simply be too much for most to afford. Higher education will therefore again become an avenue which is open only to the rich, deepening already profound class divisions. 

For the past three years I have been a student at the University of Sussex where the cut backs from the VC and management have been particularly fierce and ideologically driven. It is on the actions the students and workers have taken here in opposition to restructuring that I will focus. The cuts faced here are by no means unique and nor is the resistance mounted against them. Sussex is a symptom of wider forces and the events here are exemplary of the national struggle. 

Sussex is renowned as a radical university which draws students due to its critical approach to research and teaching. Sense it’s founding in the 1960s is strengths have been in the arts and the social and physical sciences. However the market cares not for history and neither does our vice chancellor. During the past three years he and university management have sought to restructure the university entirely to stream line it with the needs of the market. 5 million pounds of spending cuts are to be made this year with 3 million already made the previous year. It is clear however that these spending cuts are not an “unfortunate necessity” but rather part of a project of an ideological restructuring. This is exemplified in the fact that, while management have closed departments such as linguistics, American studies and Life Sciences which are seen as having little marketability, they are seeking to expand media studies and poor money into opening an entirely new business school- a subject which Sussex has no history of teaching. An even more glaring example can be seen in management’s 112 million pound building and refurbishment projects. 

It is, of course, the workers who are expected to pay for the 8 million pounds of planed cuts. 115 workers are to face compulsory redundancy, many more are to effectively lose their jobs by being put onto temporary contracts and wages and pensions are to be slashed. At the same time the top 14 managers have continued to raise their salaries and now earn a combined 2.1 million a year with the VC making 222,000 a year despite only working at the university 3 days a week. 

Thankfully the culture of radicalism at Sussex does not exist in the academic sphere alone. It is also a culture of resistance and of political action. Students at Sussex have a high level of political consciousness and, despite political differences, always come together when it counts. 

The current campaign against management spending cuts is exemplary of this culture of resistance. It has existed, in different forms, for around 5 years. However, it is only in the past year, with the immediate threat of major job losses and course closures across the university that large numbers of students have been mobilised and teachers and their union (UCU) have felt able to take industrial action. The reason for this is that were as before management would come for an individual course or would axe a few jobs by merging courses, they have now come for the university community as a whole. 

Building on its predecessor, “Sussex Not for Sale” the new campaign “Stop The Cuts” (STC) was launched during a mass meeting in 2009. It was broadly accepted during the initial stages of this campaign that radical action was needed in the form of mass demonstrations and occupations and that the campaign would build towards such actions. However we recognised students alone did not have the power would to protect jobs and reveres the cut backs we faced and so decided that all strategy would be connived with the aim of building the movement and encouraging the workers of the university to go out on all out indefinite strike. We also recognised that the cuts we were not an isolated case and that other sectors of society face similar attacks and therefore made efforts to build links of solidarity with workers and trade unions throughout the city as well as on campus; raising the slogan “students and workers- unite and fight!”. This was and continues to be a very important aspect of the campaign. 

We see political resistance as itself an educational process and intend to create a space where the experiences and lessons learned in the course of various struggles can be shared between students and workers from different areas of society. The nature of the campaign was to be pedagogical and as well as resisting the encroachment of knowledge we hoped to envision a different kind of education, one which would grow out of and in turn further political struggle. As put by Paulo Feire; “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system... or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” 

Although the campaign is not directly anti-capitalist it is widely accepted that educational systems reflect the society they exist within and so in imagining a different form of education we are also envisioning a different form of society. 

The first task of the campaign was to raise the awareness of the student body and to create a space where we could discuss cuts which were taking place and where students, academics and other workers from different areas of the university could share experiences of cuts which were happening in their sectors. This was done through the organisation of mass meetings where students, academics and other workers such as cleaners were invited to share a platform and discus the cuts they faced. As well as informing therefore these meetings where useful for creating links between students and their lectures and between workers of different unions and for giving them support by showing them that the students were with them. These meetings were also used as a forum for discussion for the course of the movement, and to decide upon future action to be taken. 

The first occupation of the campaign came off the back of a mass demonstration attended by around 500 people. For this occupation we chose a large room known as the conference centre. This was chosen due to the fact that it is not actually a part of the university, although located on its grounds, but is rented out for business meetings and functions at extortionate rates. By occupying this space we were therefore able to have a direct fiscal impact on management. We held this space for two days (one night) during which time demonstrations of students and lecturers were organised outside in support of the occupiers. The conference centre is located on the top story of a 5 story building during one such demonstration we lowered down a bucket filled with money we had collected for UCUs strike fund to a union leader below. 

UCU, the largest union on campus, has formalised an in depth alternative proposal which would allow for the required money to be saved whilst minimising job losses and maintaining the integrity of the institution. However this has been dismissed by management categorically. During the summer term therefore, when all attempts at negotiation had been exhausted, UCU voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action. On the day this vote took place around 80 students occupied the administration building of the university in an act of solidarity and support for the strike which we had been calling for. 

In occupying this building we forced management out of their ivory tower and, for a short period kicked them out as they plan to do to 115 workers. Not all management however would relinquish their citadel so easily and a bizarre situation unfolded where a low level member of management locked himself and several other staff members info an office then called the police saying that we had barricaded them in and were holding them hostage. In actuality we had given flyers to all staff members explaining why we felt the action was necessary and asking them to calmly leave; we even posted one under the door of the self imposed “hostages”. On these grounds the riot police came with dogs and pepper spray in an effort to intimidate students from taking part in legitimate demonstrations. They did not forcibly remove use (despite the urging of the VC) but did make it impossible for use to secure the space. After much argumentation amongst the occupiers inside (some people saying they didn’t believe in voting) it was decided that we could not hold the space and that we should leave in a block while there was a crowd and cameras outside. In the course of the day 3 students were arrested. 

This was a controversial occupation as the decision to occupy had not been made at an open STC meeting but at a smaller meeting, called by an Anarchist group, which was not advertised and to which many who have been active in the campaign were not invited and were unaware of. As a result we did not have the numbers to hold the space for any period of time. The occupation also resulted in the suspension of six students from taking part in university activities and management taking out a court injunction making occupations a criminal offence. We were not divided by these events however and seized this victimisation as an opportunity; mobilising huge support at Sussex and university campuses across the country for the six suspended students; dubbed the “Sussex Six”. 

The biggest demonstration of the campaign so far was held to protest the suspensions. It numbered over 700 people and a high number of staff members attended to show their support. During this demonstration it was decided that we should occupy again in defiance of the court injunction showing that we did not recognise its legitimacy. Without any previous planning we occupied a large lecture theatre (Arts A2) which, just the year before had been occupied for a week in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Israel’s campaign of mass slaughter. 

Around 300 people from the demonstration packed into the lecture theatre. Our first collective decision was to write a list of demands (very simple: 1. reinstate the Sussex Six 2. No redundancies) and a letter to management requesting that a high ranking member of management come into the occupied space to collect our demands in person and stating that we would not leave or negotiate until this happened. Amazingly two members of upper management agreed to this. They entered the lecture hall through the back door and had to walk the whole length of the room, pact past capacity with protesting students, to reach the podium where they were handed demands. The room was silent with anticipation as they entered and remained so until the second the demands were handed over when it erupted into cheering. They were asked to make a statement but preferred to leave hurriedly and without a word. 

Over the next week we used this space for a continuous program of talks, discussions and workshops on a great number of issues, mostly relating to the role of education in society, its potential as a tool of liberation and the role it could play in a society based on human needs rather than profit. We also invited speakers to talk on subjects such as the history of student protest, art and protest movements, and the role of universities in the neo-liberal world. As well as discussion of a more academic nature we also encouraged workers from the university to speak about the cuts and redundancies they faced and gave over a day for the discussion of the UCUs alternative proposals. Cleaners, porters, computer technicians, lecturers and associate teachers all entered the occupied space to give talks and contribute to discussions. Even the security guards supported us despite our actions making them have to do over time, although would not join discussions for fear of losing their jobs. Workers from the city of Brighton bin workers union (GMB) and the rail and transport workers union (RMT) also addressed the occupation and offered their solidarity for our struggle. 

We left occupation after 7 days at 6.30 am on the first of two days of strike action by UCU in order to join the picket lines. The day had an atmosphere of jubilation, it felt like a culmination of the worker/ student unity we had been building and both lectures and students were excited to be standing shoulder to shoulder on the picket line. On same day management announced that the suspensions had been dropped and so the Sussex Six came onto campus together and joined the picket line giving the campaign its first, small but real, victory. 

The strike took place at the end of the year, only lasted two days and was not able to seriously disrupt the functioning of the university. But it was a start. UCU going on strike has strengthened the confidence of workers and their unions here and has put industrial action on the table at the University of Sussex as a means by which workers can resist the attacks they are currently facing. Management has shown they will not listen to suggestions and are not interested in our concerns; they do not care about the people who make up the university or the proud history of our institution. They have their own agenda and, with the support of the state, seek to bulldoze it through. 

We have so far achieved in reducing the number of redundancies from 115 to 100 and management have agreed to make as many of these as possible “voluntary”. This shows just how far we have to go and the extent to which we will have to escalate worker and student militancy to achieve our goals. The first priority of our movement is saving jobs and protecting the workers of the university from attacks on their lively hoods. For this the unions need to go on all out indefinite strike. When this is combined with student strikes and occupations we can stop the institution from functioning and show management that it is our university and they cannot afford to ignore us. 

However the drive towards neo-liberal restructuring is not isolated to individual universities and their vice chancellors but is the result of an agenda formed and imposed by the state. The government seeks to simultaneously reduce its fiscal responsibilities and to subordinate the needs of society to those of the market for the benefit of the rich. With a conservative government in power ideologically committed to privatisation and cutting government spending this trend will intensify in the years ahead. Keeping higher education in the public domain will therefore require resistance at the national scale and as part of a wider fight back against the government’s efforts to make ordinary people pay for the financial crisis. This movement has already begun and on the day of writing (November 10th) 52,000 people have taken to the streets of London, with a large group of protestors storming the conservative parties head quarters, in protest of the proposed rise in tuition fees. 

In the course of resistance the seeds for an alternative education, and an alternative society to that envisioned by the coalition of cutters and the capitalist class, will continue to grow. 

Another education is possible- but we are going to have to fight for it. 

For more information on the Stop the Cuts campaign click here 
Ryan Powell is a student in the University of Sussex and is a member of Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in UK.

[Note: This article was published in Dec-Jan 2010-11 issue of CRITIQUE - the magazine of NSI - Delhi University Chapter]


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