Sussex University to apologise after suspending students protesting 'privatisation' of services

The four students were hundreds who took part in protests about what they claim were moves by Sussex University to 'privatise' non-academic services

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The Independent Online

A university is to apologise to students it controversially suspended after a protest about privatisation and offer them compensation for “distress and inconvenience”

Four students from Sussex University will be awarded between £2,000 and £2,500 as a result of a ruling by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) that the university had not “followed a fair procedure” in banning them from the campus.

Last night the students and their legal representative said the ruling by the OIA could have implication for other UK universities seeking to discipline student protestors.

Simon Natas, of ITN Solicitors - who represented the four students and is also representing two suspended students from Birmingham University, said: “Clearly it does have implications for other universities in the way they approach student protest.

“Most importantly, they cannot just select a small number of people whom they consider to be ringleaders and make an example of them.”

The four students were hundreds who took part in protests about what they claim were moves by Sussex University to “privatise” non-academic services. The demonstrations including an occupation of university administration offices.

In December 2013, the four were among five students suspended for playing an “organising role” in the on-going dissent - a move which prompted widespread protest from both students and staff at the university.

At a subsequent disciplinary hearing, there were protest from the students’ legal representatives - who included Geoffrey Robinson QC - about the impartiality of the panel which had been convened - after which the university decided to opt for a different disciplinary route under which the students would not be allowed legal representation. 

The OIA found this decision to be unreasonably, adding: “This led to the reasonable suspicion that the decision had been reached in order to prevent the students involved from being legally represented.”

The OIA recommended the university should review its disciplinary regulations that the students should be given an apology and compensation.

While the OIA can only recommend a course of action, in practice universities do not ignore its rulings - and Sussex has agreed to abide by the university’s decision.

Michael Segalov, one of the students suspended and currently a full-time elected officer of the students; union, said: “After months of fighting and distress, I’m relieved and elated that what we have known all along has been accepted.

“I believe the university administration targeted us because we were considered to be vocal spokespeople on behalf of a wider campaign against privatisation  .. 

“I believe the university hoped to make an example of us in what looks like an attempt to silence dissent.”

Freedom of Information requests later uncovered that the university had spent more than £55,000 on legal fees over the proceedings - a figure Mr  Segalov said “could have been put to much better use”.

A spokesman for the university said it was pleased that - despite its recommendations - the OIA had concluded it was “reasonable in the circumstances to follow disciplinary procedures, adding: “However, we not the OIA’s finding there needs to be greater clarity and transparency of information in regards to the process for student disciplinary matters.”

A review had been set in place, he added.  “Alongside this, the OIA’s case recommendations will be implemented,” he said.

In the Birmingham case, two students - Simon Furse and Kelly Rogers - are still under suspension for their role in an occupation of university rooms in a protest calling for more democracy and student representation at the university. Their appeals have yet to be heard.