43 students have occupied the third floor and conference hall of a Sussex university building as a 'last resort' to oppose the university management’s plans to privatise several key on-campus services.
The initial peaceful protest on Thursday 7 February, organised by the University of Sussex Students’ Union, attracted over 300 students, who then followed a pre-planned route around campus, which ended at Bramber House. It was here that a group of students broke away from the official protest and occupied the conference room where an external talk was taking place. A statement from the Occupy Sussex group claims that the conference delegates: “gave the students a platform to speak [and] endorsed both [their] cause and method”.
As the afternoon progressed, the students moved to the third floor of the building where they revealed a large banner calling for a halt to the privatisation process.
Despite a large security presence of both university and external officers, who have been tasked with restricting access to the occupation, additional students have apparently managed to join their peers overnight. 24 hours into the occupation, the protesters spoke of how security told them that they were now 'under siege' and initially 'refused' to allow food deliveries, which lead to students winching food up from friends on the ground, this situation has now been rectified
Michael Segalov, the press contact for the occupiers, praised the university’s own security staff, but expressed concern at the presence of dog handlers on campus, which have allegedly been contracted in.
"As a student I worry that this is a sign of what’s to come if the university press ahead with privatisation," he said.
A spokesman for the university, meanwhile, said: "I can say that this is completely and categorically untrue. We have not brought on dogs or dog handlers - or used such approaches in any way - to manage the occupation."
The general feeling amongst students not taking part appeared to be relatively sympathetic. Second year undergraduate Glenn Raymond said he felt the movement was a 'sincere act of solidarity for the staff and the valued jobs they do,' and that the eventual occupation was 'opportunist, but in term of gaining exposure to the plight, possibly necessary.'
The University of Sussex Students’ Union, which at a recent Emergency Members’ Meeting voted to make opposing privatisation their primary focus, has said that it 'supports the right of students to take part in all peaceful protest action' and is 'still in dialogue with the students taking part in the occupation'.
Students from the occupation, speaking exclusively to the Independent, said they felt that this act was justified because communicating down the usual channels with the university management had become 'impossible'.
This sentiment was echoed by students on the ground. Anne Van Buuren said she felt that the university management had continuously tried to 'demonise' the Student Union and is only interested in 'symbolic consultation'.
In response to the occupation, the university issued a statement saying that it is 'keeping the situation under review' and that 'the issues which [students] are protesting about are already the subject of discussion through the proper processes'. The outcome of which University of Sussex Registrar John Duffy, who is responsible for the university’s professional services, has said "reinforced our view that external partners – focused as they are on the specific services we need – are best placed to continue to develop our services and to invest in staff, systems and technologies that will enable us to maintain a culture of continuous improvement in what we offer to our staff and students.”
A solidarity demo held on Friday afternoon attracted over 150 students. The mood was upbeat and students spoke of how they hoped this would lead to 'real consultation', before they set of to march the same route taken by the Students Union protest a day prior.
Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, said that she lends her 'full support to all those students and staff at the University of Sussex who are taking a stand against these brazen attempts to usher in privatisation on campus'.
She added: "It is deeply concerning that the decision to outsource University services has been made with so little transparency or consultation – making it impossible to know whether these plans are either sustainable or good value for money.
"I’ve raised these fears with the management and am still waiting for an answer as to why it refused to consider any in-house service improvement plan, instead presenting ‘doing nothing’ as the only alternative to outsourcing. The University now has a duty to listen to the concerns of staff, many of whom feel anxious about their futures, trade union representatives and students who are today challenging the privatisation agenda in education."
The Occupy Sussex group has issued the following demands:
- A complete halting of the ongoing bidding process and end to the entire privatization program, effective immediately.
- A commission of students, staff and lecturers to be formed. With full remit to re-evaluate procedures and channels for holding management accountable as well as reviewing and extending student and workers’ say in these decisions.
- An end to the intimidation that senior and middle management have used to deter students and workers for airing and acting on their concerns.