Last month students at Sussex Uni occupied a campus building in protest against plans to privatise university services. Six weeks later and they’re still there. On Monday the campaign stepped up a gear with a demonstration attracting around a thousand students, members of staff and local residents.
On February 7th students occupied the top floor of Bramber House, a university conference building, in response to management plans to outsource 235 jobs in areas like cleaning, security and catering. Since making national headlines the occupation has attracted a string of big-name supporters such as Noam Chomsky, Will Self and Brighton Festival curator, Michael Rosen. Even Frankie Boyle, himself a former Sussex student, chipped in by ordering a shedload of pizzas to be delivered at Bramber House.
Having occupied campus cafes earlier in the day, the protestors gathered in Library Square at 1pm for speeches and, because it’s Brighton, poetry. Caitlin Hayward-Tapp read a nice piece about the sense of empowerment she’d found by being involved in the occupation; a local trade unionist highlighted how the student protest was part of a wider struggle against privatisation; while Greg Parsons, one of ‘the 235’ whose jobs are on the line, announced the formation of a new pop-up union to deal with the issue. We also heard a message of support sent by Caroline Lucas who, along with ten other MPs, has signed an Early Day Motion calling on parliament to halt the plans.
In a nice change from the usual uniform of protest, much of the crowd was dressed in yellow scarves and armbands. There were ribbons tied round trees, people in banana suits and confetti made from post-it notes. This, however, didn’t stop a group of protestors turning up in black masks and hoodies with a huge banner that simply said: “COMMUNISM”. This may or may not have been ironic.
When the Labour MP, Katie Clark, got up to speak she was booed by this lot and heckled for being a hypocrite. It would seem that some on the left still prefer to argue amongst themselves rather than unite on a single issue. Mind you, whoever heckled with “You’re the one who started it!” had a point.
As the march began, a cry went up to stop people trampling on the daffodils (they were out in solidarity it seems), which may confuse the disgusted-of-Hove types who were hoping for a ‘thugs on the rampage’ story. Nope, just a bunch of students who like flowers. Anyway, after a jovial stomp round the campus, the march wound its way past Sussex House where the management’s offices are based. Those who work there had been told not to come in and there were wooden struts across the windows. This didn’t stop people breaking in and occupying another building. The score at half time: 2-0 to the protestors.
Having spotted a line of riots vans parked in Stanmer Park, we were half expecting the police to outnumber the protestors, but we’d barely seen any until now. Their first foray to protect Sussex House had ended with some baseball cap officers being surrounded by protestors and forced to retreat. There was a scuffle, but no violence. For an hour or so protestors milled around, unsure if the police would move in or use the opportunity to oust the original occupation. Eventually, the riot cops came out and the building was cleared. At this point the several hundred remaining protestors went back to Bramber House and a general meeting was called.
This was a national demo which meant large groups of students arrived in coaches from places like UCL, Exeter, Manchester, Bristol and Portsmouth. Delegates from each got up to speak about privatisation in their universities – in some it has already happened wholesale – and to debate possible future actions. This issue has been brewing at Sussex for a year now and many other institutions are facing a similar fate. What might at first seem like a minor provincial issue is building national momentum – in many ways continuing the student struggle that began over tuition fees. Given the government’s agenda concerning the NHS, it probably won’t just be students marching against privatisation for much longer.
University of Sussex, Monday 25th March 2013
Words by Ben Bailey