Lights, camera, protest: The film that rocked Sussex University

It's £38.2m in debt, but Sussex University has branded a documentary that questions its financial failings as misleading. Staff and students have applauded it. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

Students at Sussex University have always been given to protest. In the Sixties, they were also chic and sometimes mini-skirted, as befitted the new university created to bring interdisciplinarity and internationalism to the campus. Today, they are intensely serious, if a movie produced by three students into alleged mismanagement at the university is anything to go by.

The film, From the Top Down, has been playing to appreciative audiences on campus and has been sent to MPs,heads of department, the five deans, members of the university council and senate, and to vice-chancellors and all student unions in the 1994 group of universities. Last week, students clapped loudly after the film's last public showing on campus.

"It's been well received by staff and students," says Daniel Vockins, its director and second-year student of international relations and philosophy. "We started making the movie seven months ago. The university stopped us filming, saying we had to give them a list of the names of staff we wanted to talk to and our reasons. So, we submitted some names but they didn't reply to our e-mails. We think this was a deliberate tactic to scare us off."

Needless to say, it didn't work. Instead of interviewing the academics, the students spent hours poring over minutes of council and senate meetings in the university library. The film is the result of this research, cataloguing what students view as the financial crisis that has gripped Sussex since 2001. Two projects, in particular, left serious holes in the university's finances. They were the installation of a high-speed data network, which was budgeted to cost £1.5m but ended up costing £4.475m and the restructuring of academic departments, which was budgeted at £20m but considerably overran that.

Alasdair Smith, the vice-chancellor, strongly refutes any charge of financial mismanagement. Sussex now has debts of £38.2m. Moreover, staff morale is poor, according to the movie, and students became so alienated that they launched a "Sort Us Out" campaign to have their voice heard - the biggest protest of its kind on a UK university campus.

In an attempt to lift the university up the league tables and put it on a better financial footing, Smith announced a plan in March to shift money from subjects that were considered weak to stronger areas. The sparks really began to fly when it was learnt that chemistry was to close and a new department of chemical biology would rise in its place. There were protests in Parliament and the media. Smith was called before the Commons science and technology committee, and savaged in a subsequent report for secretive and inept decision-making. The senate decided to review the plan to close chemistry, and, hey presto, it stayed open.

The main problem in the university is governance, the students' movie concludes. The university council and senate are accused of rubber-stamping decisions of senior management rather than holding them to account. What is needed is a radical shift in the way proposals are put forward and implemented, say the students, so that staff are consulted and their views taken seriously. The vice-chancellor admitted last week that he had not seen the film. Nevertheless, the university press office put out a statement in his name saying that the film misrepresented the financial and management position "in a misleading and unbalanced way".

But staff seem to agree with the movie-makers that there are serious flaws in the way Sussex is run. Gerry Lawless, who, as head of the chemistry department, fought a successful campaign to keep it open, says: "I agree that there has been mismanagement at the university in the last few years."

Although the vice-chancellor's statement described the film as "a hard-hitting polemical piece", academics praised the film for its seriousness and its thorough research. "It's a really well-made film" says William Outhwaite, professor of sociology. "I think the university has been mismanaged. There needs to be a shift of orientation. The danger is that they may move in a more punitive direction and get rid of people. The failures are of organisation and management, not of academics."

Andrew Chitty, a lecturer in philosophy, says the movie was a fantastic tribute to the students. "They have done an exhaustive amount of research," he says. "The film provides a convincing case for serious shortcomings in the management of the university over the last few years."

In its statement, the university says that many of the issues raised in the film have been resolved. Student facilities such as refurbished teaching spaces, new student residences and improved catering are being put in place. The management is also being improved through the appointment of three new pro-vice chancellors. Since the filming started, the university has also begun to build "positive" working relationships with the students' union and stronger student representation on decision-making committees, it adds.

But Roger Hilton, the student union president, is sceptical that much has changed. "The vice-chancellor's response is really a lot of spin," he says. "The real issue is that the governance of the university has not been up to scratch. Decisions have been made and not been properly scrutinised. This is having a detrimental effect on staff morale and the student experience."

Interviewed last week, the vice-chancellor rejected the notion that he didn't consult with people on campus. "I talk to people a lot," he says. "I have open meetings with students, I have two open meetings with staff every term."

Acknowledging the debts of £38.2m, Smith argues that the borrowing was perfectly proper and was used to fund student residences in the same way as other universities do. "We're in the process of adding very substantially to these 'debts' by taking out an additional loan of £28m, the greater part of which will be used to fund a major new student residential development on campus; and we're in the early stages of discussion about financing still further residential development," he says. "This is not financial mismanagement; it is the financial management of a very significant improvement in the quality of the student experience at Sussex."

But there is an even bigger storm brewing. The vice-chancellor's plan, "Investing in Excellence", to shift resources from weak to strong departments depended on the university shedding 45 academics who were not research-active. That has proved impossible through voluntary redundancy, so compulsory redundancies are being proposed. "We are fighting this," says Julian Saurin, the president of the local branch of the University and College Union. "The effect on staff morale is frightening. If you want good teachers and researchers, you don't treat them like this."

Both Saurin and Vockins are calling for the vice-chancellor to resign, arguing that he has presided over too many botched plans to stay. But other academics believe he should remain.

Lawless says: "The vice-chancellor is operating in a very tough environment. Universities are not properly funded and science, in particular, is not properly funded. I think that Alasdair Smith is a man who has tried to do his best for the university."

To see the movie, go to www.ussu.net/sortUSout/documentary

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