At issue are two clashing visions of the university experience - one that sees students as consumers and another that rejects the commercialisation of learning and everything that goes with it. Other universities are watching as students and staff at the Falmer campus, near Brighton, flex their campaigning muscles.
The trigger for the dispute is what the protesters regard as creeping privatisation on campus. Sussex is one of several universities outsourcing key services such as catering and estate management.
Student campaigners, who have occupied the university’s conference centre since early February, say the move will jeopardise employment terms and conditions. “Private providers won’t be bound to provide workers with the same contract terms, so there’s a danger positions may be undermined,”said William Brown, a first-year English student. “The university has also been very unclear about the reasons behind the decision, which is incredibly hypocritical of an academic institution."
Plans to outsource services were “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, said Theadora Jean, a master’s student in critical and creative writing. “Across the country universities are becoming more and more like businesses ... this is about making a stand against that."
The university’s vice-chancellor, Michael Farthing, told BBC Radio Sussex: “Sussex has always been a place where people are critical of a whole range of issues from management to government. Providing the protests are peaceful, and providing they’re legal and the protesters are safe, we have freedom of speech here and we allow people to express their views."
Universities and colleges are increasingly looking to outsource campus services, according to the National Union of Students. It says London Metropolitan University is using a private firm to reshape its non-teaching services and Falmouth University plans to move academic support staff to a private company, FX Plus. The company, which is jointly owned by Exeter and Falmouth universities and employs 235 of the universities’ non-academic staff, would allow the university to evade national pay structures. In November, the University of Central Lancashire in north-west England, became the first public university to apply to become a private company.
Rachel Wenstone, NUS vice-president for higher education, said: “If you’re looking to make profit from frontline student services then you’re doing the wrong thing. Part of a university’s responsibility is to ensure their students are happy and healthy while on campus. This means certain things, like good housing and food, are fundamental and you shouldn’t be making a profit from either.
“Universities are public institutions ... If universities are profit-driven, this destroys the possibility that they have any level of community responsibility."
The Sussex dispute shows no sign of abating. While a university meeting with the occupiers ended in deadlock, the University and Colleges Union says staff have been stopped from wearing badges to show their support for the campaign.
Brown hopes the negative publicity will force management to back down. “The occupation is costing them money because they rent Bramber House [the building being occupied] out as a conference centre but we’re also highlighting their privatisation plans."