THE BLOG

The Vindication of the Sussex Five: When Will the Vice-Chancellor Resign?

22/01/2015 13:58 GMT | Updated 24/03/2015 09:59 GMT

As the universities ombudsman (OIA) give their welcome ruling today, the aims and aspirations of the anti-privatisation movement at Sussex University have been vindicated. When I joined the movement in May 2012, we proudly protested against the entry of profiteering vultures set to worsen working conditions for the lowest paid staff. We admonished the arrogant and undemocratic reign of the Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing, who ignored staff protests as he steamrolled the sale of 235 workers to the highest bidder.

A year ago on the 17 January, I was brought to a disciplinary hearing where I faced the prospects of expulsion from my Master's degree. My crime? I dared stand alongside fellow students and workers, relentlessly protesting the plans to privatise our essential support services. Together, we chose the path of civil disobedience because we recognised that "dialogue" is a vacuous term in the dictionary of neoliberal Sussex. We have continuously demanded a democratic restructuring of the university to put staff and students first. Unless forced to, the hardline vice-chancellor would never negotiate to this.

For the alleged crime of occupying the University's Conference Centre in November 2013, I was suspended on the 4th December with four other alleged delinquents. According to their claims, we were a threat to the wellbeing of staff and students and a potential hazard to the University's policies on Health and Safety. Our community of students and workers responded by protesting and when faced with a student strike, the university surrendered and reinstated us.

The January disciplinary hearing collapsed under pressure from Geoffrey Robertson QC, as the chair of the panel acknowledged his inherent bias against us. Despite this, the university refused to give up. Their first attempt at a fraudulent trial had failed. They were determined not to lose face.

Fearful of our pro bono support from world-leading human rights lawyers, the university reduced the severity of our charges without justification. Under this new disciplinary procedure, we were not allowed legal representation. It was clear to us that the university was hell-bent on finding us "guilty" in order to save face, although the new procedure brought with it a maximum fine of £250 rather than the previous expulsion. Somehow, in the eyes of the university, the seriousness of our alleged crimes was reduced.

In the end, we were given a caution on the 11th March because of "conduct injurious to the academic or administrative activities of the university". This caution was given in our absence as we did not recognise the legitimacy of the disciplinary hearing. We acknowledged that without legal representation, this politically motivated witch hunt would find us guilty. There is no justice if the outcome is already determined, we thought.

By remaining true to our principles, we have now been vindicated. According to the ombudsman, the university did not follow fair procedure with our suspension nor was their decision "reasonable in the circumstances". They had singled us out without justification, and they had unreasonably lowered the charges against us. For the stress and hardship we have been awarded a modest compensation and a written apology for the three month ordeal we were subjected to.

Despite this vindication, we have always acknowledged our role in disrupting the income-generating activities, for which we were found "guilty" in March. I am proud to have supported my friends and colleagues in the essential services, having had the luxury to do so. The managers could not intimidate us, the students, the way they did with the lowest paid staff. We did not live with the fear of losing our jobs, so we could disrupt the functions of the university to bring about negotiations with greater ease. Characteristically, the university responded with repression. Using riot police, bailiffs and court injunctions they evict our occupations, and through suspensions and disciplinaries they seek to weaken our conviction.

The vindictive and isolated senior management clique penalises dissent in the hope that they would stifle protest and strike fear into the campus community. Managing through fear, they thought, is better than being concessionary to a confident workforce and student body. This tactic has been far from successful. The vice-chancellor has neither undermined the movement, nor has he saved face. Every draconian measure generates a stronger, more determined response from the campus community. And the university opinion is clear. The overwhelming majority of staff and students at Sussex, for those of us that know the place, want the Vice-Chancellor to resign.

As calls for his resignation grow louder, we should ask ourselves the following questions; how long will Michael Farthing last? And what compensation will come to the others who have suffered at the hands of his reign?