“The university is categorically not banning peaceful demonstrations that don’t involve occupations”
John Duffy, University of Sussex registrar and secretary
Those are the words of a man who has just been awarded the power to ban peaceful demonstrations. And occupations. And violent demonstrations. All demonstrations. He wanted to ban demons and trations individually, but the judge told him that was a step too far.
The issue is outsourcing. Registrar Duffy wants to put 235 university jobs to tender – jobs like catering staff, porters and security officers, over 10% of the university’s workforce. He did this with no consultation of the student body, academics, or staff concerned.
After repeated student attempts to enter a dialogue over the issue (including a successful public petition), all of which were ignored, an occupation began in the conference room on the top floor of the University’s Bramber House building on 7th February. This action, like that of protest marches before it, was entirely peaceful and enjoyed the support of thousands of students and staff. Staff reorganised courses flexibly to allow the occupation to continue.
The Registrar tried to evict them and took the case to the High Court, which granted him not only the right to evict the protest, but to ban all campus protests that don’t receive prior sanction. From him.
So the most charitable interpretation of his quote would be “The University is not banning peaceful protests with which the University agrees.” Not exactly a great leap forward. The eviction has now taken place. It was, again, peaceful – although with 135 security personnel, that is hardly surprising. You might call it ‘overkill’. Especially since they managed to arrest a few people. There are allegations that security personnel assaulted activists – watch this space for evidence.
Plenty of ink (and possibly blood) has already been spilt on this issue, so I’ll restrict myself to elements that stand out:
Lack of Consultation
Although there have been a few Q&A sessions after the decision to outsource was made, that’s pretty much it. Universities are communities, and although there’s necessarily a difference between staff and students, it is perfectly possible for them to act and think in each others’ interests. Take for example the Oxford students campaigning for a living range for scouts.
Alternately, we could see university in purely economic terms, as an exchange of money for education. If this is the case, then the student body or ‘customers’ must have a powerful voice; equally the employees are at least concerned stakeholders. Student-customers are concerned that privatisation will lead to poorer quality service, data protection issues and security questions. Outsourcing in this case exemplifies a stark conflict of interest between those wanting quality affordable service, and those wanting a profit.
By making the decision so hastily, the university denied its stakeholders any opportunity to devise a plan that both meets the management’s funding needs and the stakeholders’ wishes.
Getting the news’ attention seems to be a perverse Catch-22. With the honourable exceptions of the Graun and the Indy, the peaceful occupation received precious little coverage, positive or otherwise. However, when a small faction of protesters got violent on March 25th (i.e. after almost two months of action), suddenly the wider world took notice (£) and predictably decried the protesters’ tactics (as did many protesters). This flare of violence apparently swayed the High Court judge’s decision to grant the injunction to “prevent a repetition of the kind of violent protest seen on campus”. Only VICE properly covered the eviction and noted that protests were being planned despite the ban.
There is particular irony in the nature of the March 25th protest – the Registrar was upset that the protesters had invited activists from other universities to participate. Mr. Outsource was unhappy that the anti-outsourcers outsourced their campaign to stop his outsourcing.
This essentially comes down to property rights – that the Sussex Uni management controls the campus, so can dictate what goes on within its bounds. It seems absurd. Since the 1960s, Sussex has had a wholesome reputation as a hotbed of protest and radical thought, and indeed that may still be an attraction for applicants. To ban non-sanctioned protests is not only authoritarian, but flies in the face of the very academic, radical, confrontative yet nonviolent spirit which should be fostered. It also demonstrates a clear ‘hierarchy’ of rights in practical terms – that property rights completely trump the right to protest and freedom of expression.
As a sidenote, the protest ban seems to fly in the face of DC’s big society. There is an Early Day Motion in parliament from Green Caroline Lucas supporting the protesters (which I urge you to support), but this is probably too little, too late. Rather than approach a genuine funding problem with a mindset of consensus and participation, a very small number around Registrar Duffy have pushed ahead with a secretive planning and tendering process, and refused to consider the valid concerns of those it will affect.
No wonder the demons are in arms.