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Report on the Anti-Cuts Campaign at the University of Sussex

Report on the Anti-Cuts Campaign at the University of Sussex

 Images: Catarina Neto Carvalho 

This report is for information. 

                                   – HEFCE Strategic Plan, 2010-2011

We begin with a comparison of two proposals. In January 2009 the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group (VCEG) issued, in an attractive high-gloss brochure, a new strategic plan. Titled Making the Future, the document was low on specifics and high on the fumes of its own euphuism. It announced an intention to usher the University into the 21st century; it was, it said, an “agenda for growth”, issuing from the self-nominated “custodians” of the “vision” of the University’s founders.

“I hope therefore that as you read the detailed goals and strategies in the pages to follow, the future which they seek to make will be the very best attainable.”[1]

Ten months into the very best attainable future, the management published a successor document — The Proposal for Change. Here the pangloss wore off: the Proposal for Change is, in both presentation and tone, the realist counterpoint to the PR rhapsody. Its functional design befits what is, incontrovertibly, an agenda for reduction. In his written introduction to the new text, and in his public speech in support of it, the Vice Chancellor sought to conjure the shadow of global economic crisis. The “golden age of public investment in Higher Education,” he wrote, “is now, at least for the next few years, at an end.” The Proposal included in its second part an outline for 117 redundancies across the University’s academic and service staff. Some departments, including Informatics, were to be compressed almost out of existence; Humanities departments such as History and English found that their expertise in ‘low demand’ areas was to be amputated; while unprofitable campus ‘trading services’ – first among which was the University’s crèche – faced closure. Student advice services were to be centralised and reduced by two thirds, the workload for cleaners was doubled, and the campus security staff was to be reduced from sixteen to ten.   

This was a business strategy in nuce,the Future that the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group had always been preparing to make.

As Higher Education in the UK is swept on the tide of government mandates into a new century, some universities have more modernising to do than others. The University of Sussex – indebted through years of financial mismanagement – is one of these.  In April 2007 the University’s Council appointed Michael Farthing to the position of Vice Chancellor. The strategic plan introduced by Farthing in January 2009 had at its centre several proposals: a much expanded School of Business, Management and Economics, intended to attract high-fee paying overseas students; the introduction of a new system of schools; and the management of research by “themes” designed to attract cash from the funding councils and the public sector.

Fuelled by concern that these plans would restrict academic freedom, reduce funding to non-marketised research, and commercialise undergraduate and postgraduate education, a group of students and staff formed a study group to investigate the broad processes of change in contemporary British higher-education. The study group quickly expanded into a mass campaign against the management proposal for change. A series of mass meetings grew rapidly; the 2008 spring term ended with the largest demonstration at the University for twenty years.

But the movement faded out. The campaign, committed to a strategy of mass mobilisation, failed to sustain itself into the summer. Suddenly burdened with year-end work commitments, many interested individuals deprioritised their involvement; students who advocated occupation were a significant minority.

The new strategy pursued by the recent campaign at Sussex has been, for several reasons, signally more militant. The Stop the Cuts campaign is, unlike its predecessor, organised in part by leftist groups committed in their advocacy of disruptive intervention. Simultaneously, the tactic of occupation has been rehabilitated after its recent use in the student struggles in New York, California and elsewhere. Finally, Sussex’s management has lumbered into a new stage of activity. If 2008 was the year in which the proposals for change were broadly asseverated, for the majority of the Sussex community, 2009 was the year in which the most damaging effects of those changes were illuminated.

By June of that year, nine of the twelve heads required for the new Schools had been installed. These new heads, many of whom were brought in from outside of Sussex, are employed on six year contracts (replacing the earlier rotational system) and are largely exempted from teaching duties. The new Heads of Schools are the product of the management’s agenda for change. The aggressive imposition of a cuts program required the unshakeable approval of the most highly positioned stratum of academics, and their approval had been bought.[2]

In the face of this long process of careful and costly preparation, students were faced with the imperative to mobilise rapidly. The Stop the Cuts campaign held its first meeting in October 2009. The organisational asymmetry was obvious. Management cuts proposals had in their support the evidential force of declining state funding for public education and a significant operating deficit. Cuts, the management could judiciously say, have to be made. But these cuts? VCEG was keen to assert that the redundancies and budget reductions it had proposed were the result of an extended, transparent process of consultation and had elicited the warm approval of all heads of Schools. Moreover, they could argue, the Proposal for Change was issued in November “for Consultation.” It would be followed by three months of open discussion with the academics and students it affected.

But the Heads of Schools had been appointed by management under the circumstances described above.[3] To illustrate the significance of this, just the briefest sampling of miscommunications will do. The new Head of School in History, Art History and Philosophy, Professor Matthew Cragoe, who joined the University full-time in August 2009, has proposed to end research and research-led teaching in English history before 1700 and European history before 1900, adducing as reason a drop in student interest in earlier periods. At no point was any other historian seriously consulted on these measures. When the proposal for three redundancies was made, members of the History department were compelled to form an action committee, working slavishly around their teaching and research commitments to produce an alternative proposal within the consultation period. One member of staff targeted for redundancy was delisted after management were forced to acknowledge that the individual’s activity in the department had been “miscategorised.” The proposal approbated by Cragoe remains otherwise unmodified.

As the Student Advisors note in their counter-proposal, quoting from the still unavailable second part of the Proposal for Change, VCEG did “not pretend that they have carried out in depth research.”[4] University management’s attempt to legitimise its cuts by gesturing at generalised economic insecurity is bogus. The attempt is not bogus because cuts do not have to be made; it is bogus because it conceals the mulish obstinacy with which the program of compulsory redundancies was imposed. Despite appeals to prove that it considered alternatives, Sussex management has neglected to demonstrate that it ever contemplated seriously any measure other than staff cuts. The decision “to lose posts,” to use the politely metonymical locution preferred by VCEG, is the easiest way to save money; why contemplate anything else?[5] It isn’t surprising that Sussex’s management doesn’t care that, in a period when the higher education jobs market is so stagnant it’s putrid, academics dumped from their posts are often without prospect of reemployment. What is surprising is that management doesn’t believe it has to masquerade a serious interest for an audience who do care passionately. This is, at present, an index of the impotence of all those who resist deference to The Market from within the university.   


While groups of staff worked independently on departmental counter-proposals to the cuts program, the student campaign considered its options. The Stop the Cuts solidified itself by introducing regular organisational meetings – but its earliest actions remained tentative. At the Student Union’s annual general meeting in November it was agreed to boycott the National Student Survey, which, in line with its prioritisation of “student experience”, the current Sussex management has been obsessively advertising. Later in the term a few demonstrations attracted more than two hundred participants, and the largest, scheduled to coincide with a meeting of the University Senate on 3rd December, escalated into a confrontational protest within the building where that meeting took place.

But despite this, the student campaign did not intensify – didn’t, in its present form, really begin – until the spring term. It began in its present form on the afternoon of 8th February 2010. On that afternoon, after a brief demonstration, 106 students entered a conference centre in one of the campus’s central teaching buildings. Their statement, obviously borrowing its phraseology from the occupiers of New York and California Universities, was brief:

They’re occupying everywhere in waves across California, New York, Greece, Croatia, Germany and Austria and elsewhere – and not only in the universities. We send greetings of solidarity and cheerful grins to all those occupation movements and everyone else fighting the pay cuts, cuts in services and jobs which will multiply everywhere as bosses and states try and pull out of the crisis.

But we are the crisis. 

We are the crisis to the extent that we block all attempts at reconciliation with the functionaries of academic “reform”. The occupiers of the Bramber House conference centre, refusing modus vivendi, share one further habit with the American occupation movement. That other habit is the use of the incontrovertible marketisation in University education to occasion more expansive polemic against the moribundity of the capitalist work process per se. THE UNIVERSITY IS A FACTORY, ends the Sussex occupations statement. STRIKE. OCCUPY.

In the current sharpening of the dialectic of marketisation and anti-marketisation within the University, the focus of an anti-market opposition must be materialist. When made with reference to a value of intellectual autonomy, arguments against the regulation of academic research will always be represented as the ululations of a cultural and economic elite hostile to the effort of social contribution. There is truth in this caricature. The demand for autonomy fails so long as it remains a demand for autonomy for us and is incapable of seeing that what is most detestable about the rhetoric of contribution is not the value it invokes but the material process it currently represents. That material process is the regime of intensified labour monitoring currently being rolled out, not only in the universities, but internationally. The managerial calculators fumbling with the bibliometrics of contribution do have a claim to one form of equality: it is equality in the repressive imposition of discipline.  

This is the truth of the rhetoric of the Bramber House occupation statement. Its untruth, more simply, is that if the commensurability of the university and the factory is to be a reality then the strike in the university must be able to motivate a strike in the factory, and vice versa. In February 2010, the occupiers of Bramber House were in no position to realise political unification of this kind. To point this out is not merely to perform an exercise in rhetorical disciplinarianism. The unreality of the rhetoric is the mirror image of the uncertainty of the tactic the campaign at Sussex was to adopt — it has significant consequences for the next stages of that campaign. After the Bramber house occupation ended on 9th February, its participants promised further defiance of ersatz and placatory consultation. A flash occupation of a university building had successfully disrupted a conference. This was a threat. But for a threat of this kind to be effective independently of specific and attainable demands, it has to be sustained in at least one of three ways: the campaign can grow in numbers and intensity of vociferation, the buildings it chooses to occupy can grow in size and strategic importance, or the occupations can extend in length. And at this stage in its development the Stop the Cuts campaign was still to create a significant working relationship with the academics and service staff whose positions it defended. The result was that its choice of tactic had, in effect, been made: it must occupy again; it must do it soon; and this time it must be more disruptive.

Despite this, the need to protect staff members targeted for redundancy disinclined campaigners from discarding all demands on “issues”. The tactic of occupation was selected – the purposes of this tactic were still open to dispute. The Sussex campaign is, currently, as its name might suggest, a fight against cuts. It is difficult to spirit away the tension between the genesis of that campaign and an impulse, shared among some of its members, to secede from the institution entirely. The most bright and living part of the Sussex campaign so far, the part least susceptible to recuperation into a short-term anti-cuts agenda, is not its adoption of a political rhetoric first uttered in different political settings – predominately American and French – but, simply, the growth in its intelligence. Its intelligence has grown with its choice to confront with argument as well as with defiance the justifications marshalled by its enemy. The campaign grows up not by reduplicating the slogans of other campaigns; instead, it criticises, and as it tears away the Excel spreadsheets that tighten around the throat of vigorous intellectual life, it learns to speak with its own voice.

This, though, in February, was still to be realised.


On 3rd March around sixty students occupied the University of Sussex’s main administrative building. In the hope that their numbers would increase, the occupiers left open the door of the fire escape through which they entered; against their wishes, it was then held open by members of campus security. In order to block entry, around thirty students crowded into the narrow corridor leading to the fire escape. Others moved around the building, explaining to staff their reasons for entering the building and assuring safe exit.[6]

Shortly thereafter, dozens of police arrived. It was a brief occupation. The defendsussex blog has claimed that there were fifteen police vans – it claimed also that there were tasers and that students were attacked with CS gas. These are exaggerations. There were around fifteen police vehicles, including around seven vans; people were threatened but not sprayed with gas, and rumours about taser deployment were, it seems, phantasies of the brain. But it doesn’t require exaggeration to deplore the size and strength of the police force present. It was, for most of us there, a bruising shock to see row upon row of riot police deployed on the grass banks of our campus. And the bruises were not all psychological. After part of the crowd attempted to flank the police blocking free access to the occupied building, it was repelled by direct force. Batons were drawn and punches thrown. Two students were arrested. One was dragged down a grass bank and pushed violently onto a concrete surface.[7] The crowd of demonstrators outside was pressed back and the police lines solidified. Inside the building the occupiers were unsettled — they left the building voluntarily after 6 p.m. From the outside the whole affair was nasty and short. Inside, students were unable to organise or use the space productively, since around half their number was required to crowd into a narrow corridor. 

But if the event was so ignominious, even unprecedented, who bears responsibility? This was not an occupation of a vacant room. Sussex house is a place of work for many staff; its occupation, declared the University Registrar, disrupts the “smooth running of the university.” And so does this warrant the police response? A glance at the history of protest in Sussex proves that it does not. As recently as May 1999, Sussex house was occupied for two weeks without a police response even nearly comparable in its scale or focus. When the then Vice Chancellor Alasdair Smith attempted to negotiate with protestors in person, he was accompanied, the student newspaper reported, by three police officers. When protesters refused to negotiate, he was compelled to action starkly contrasted with that of current management: he called a public meeting.

The real reason for the grotesque escalation of police presence lies elsewhere than the occupiers’ choice of venue. In a witness statement for the University’s High Court Injunction, issued at 6:30 p.m., the Registrar John Duffy claims that students held staff “hostage.” If this is what the Registrar was claiming under oath in the early evening, we can surmise that this is what his colleagues were saying to police on the phone in the early afternoon. This claim has unmysteriously vanished from subsequent management statements on the occupation. Nothing makes clearer the contempt with which the current management holds the university’s students than the flagrancy of their misrepresentation of student action. Management, in that moment, committed to a procedure of escalation. Just as no previous management of the University had been so able or inclined to disregard its education provision and its staff, no previous management had been so able or inclined to disregard substantive negotiation in favour of force.

Relying on force to suppress student discontent was the first of three management errors that have in large part determined the subsequent course – and the subsequent solidity – of the campaign. After using lies to secure a disproportionate police response, VCEG compounded their mistake by using false testimony to secure a High Court Injunction on “occupational protest” and, on the 4th March, by suspending with immediate effect six students identified as “leading participants” in the occupation.

In one flailing sweep VCEG allowed to recrudesce into the public domain the evidence of its strategic relationship to truth and, on the other, targeted a group so far exempted from the most immediately deleterious effects of its proposals: the students. The anti-cuts campaign stirred with renewed vitality in the face of an obviously vindictive and impolitic attack. A student body largely indifferent to its activist minority were not so supine as to accept that that same minority had resorted to hostage taking; and it was quickly publicised that the Vice Chancellor’s suspensions were effectuated by fiat under the authority of an Ordinance introduced, two years ago, by — the Vice Chancellor.

And yet “occupational protest” on campus was now, under the terms of the injunction, Contempt of Court. At the subsequent organisational meetings, student opinion diverged on the issue of future occupations. A mass demonstration was called to protest against police presence on campus, and a provisional consensus was arrived at: occupation would not be ruled out, but the decision to do it would be made, not on principle, but on the basis of an evaluation of strength and support.


On Wednesday, 11th March, around 700 students gathered in library square for the largest demonstration at the University in twenty years. For some of us, this was an occasion for celebration. For a student resistance to succeed, it has to break the mask of management professional neutrality. Students, a recently departed member of VCEG is alleged to have once said, are “fucking idiots.” This kind of attitude can be sustained off the record only so long as business people are capable of arrogating legitimacy for their language and their style of presentation. To prevent them from sustaining it, it is not enough to point out that this language is, as Gabriel Josipovici put it in a recent letter to the TLS, “execrable English”; it is not enough because this English is not execrable; it is legitimate English, and it will continue to be blared unabated over the eloquent diminuendo of the well-meaning Humanities professors who dissent to it. To make the mask of professional neutrality really slip, this language needs to be revealed, not as the neutral idiom of a tribe of bad speakers, but as the language of a group of people isolated within their own institution, intellectually unprepared for the course of action on which they embarked, and prone to violent reaction. Our managers are despicable in practice and not only linguistically, and when the pie charts in their .pdf documents cease to function as a shield, a sheet of clear polycarbonate will make a fine substitute.  

On the 11th March, at least 700 students knew this.

After those 700 marched around the campus grounds, between 200-300 of the protesting students entered the A2 Lecture theatre to attend, impromptu, a series of speeches against police tactics. They did not leave until 18th March. In the eight days that the building was occupied, not a single police officer arrived on campus, no disciplinary actions were tabled, and the occupiers’ demands were collected in person by the illustrious John Duffy. Able to hold a venue for a sustained period, the students were able also to programme a various schedule of events – there were coherently arranged poetry readings, talks by and with workers, unionists and academics, major critical theory lectures, film screenings and good meals. More and more regularly, academic and support staff began to drop into the space just to talk with students. And these students – despite their other commitments, both external and internal to the occupation – managed to co-ordinate the production of a pulse of intelligent and critical writing.[8] When, on 17th March, at an Emergency General Meeting, 850 students almost unanimously passed motions of no-confidence in VCEG and of opposition to the suspensions – and after, later in the day, Senate followed suit on this latter – VCEG was routed. The suspensions were lifted unconditionally on 18th March.

The political vitality of the Sussex campaign requires that it begin again with onset of the summer term. It cannot allow itself to be deflated by the management’s prudential retreat from its most obviously repressive tactics – these may not recur. But this means that it must use the legitimacy it has gained for its primary tactic – occupation – to become smarter and, imperatively, less isolated than its enemy. To argue effectively against the direction of capitalist labour from within the university, the indigenous advocates of that tendency must first be defeated. They cannot be defeated by students alone.

[1] Making the Future, p. 9.

[2] Coincident with VCEG’s re-organisation of the Schools has been its attempt to secure the assent of Senate to a major change in composition. Currently Sussex Senate has 14 ex officio and 50 elected members. This, the former Registrar points out, makes Sussex’s Senate 50% larger than the average equivalent in the 1994 group of universities. In an argument that displays all the critical faculties of a statistics graph, he proposes to address this disproportion by raising the ex officio membership of the Senate to 20 and reducing the elected membership by 80%. Senate, at the moment the most independent of the University’s three statutory bodies, would then be comprised by a majority of academics in high pay thraldom to the Vice Chancellor. So far the proposal has been vigorously rejected and contemned. See Senate Proposal 2/221/3.     

[3] See the advertisement still available on the VC pages of the Sussex website:

[4] Student Advisors’ Counter-Proposal, p. 2. Available at

[5] Quote taken from the Summary of the Proposal, available at

[6] A facsimile of the flyer handed to staff members, along with an abundance of other documentary materials, is available in the Dossier of interviews with occupiers and Sussex House staff hosted on the defendsussex blog.

[7] For the rightly sceptical, video evidence is available at

[8] Some of this writing is magnificent. The dossier on events inside Sussex House, mentioned above and available at the defendsussex blog, is of exactly the calibre that needs to be maintained if students are really to delegitimise management arguments. It isn’t a coincidence that the defendsussex blog was so well maintained during the final, extended occupation. It is, now, an invaluable resource not just for news but for documents on and intelligent criticism of the current cuts program at Sussex.

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