THE BLOG

Sussex University: Making the Future or Vandalising It?

20/01/2014 11:30 GMT | Updated 19/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The University of Sussex, we are often told, is not merely engaged in the provision of infrequent lectures and surreal competitions about boiled eggs. No, its task is far more beneficent than that: the University of Sussex is making the future.

If true, this is worrying. What sort of future is being made? What destiny is being forged?

These are not new questions. Lord Fulton of Falmer, the first Vice-Chancellor of Sussex and a man who somehow fitted the names of two campus buildings into his full title, wrote 50 years ago this year: "Education is 'making the future' but is the future to be a tailor-made society whose features are clearly imprinted and pre-determined by men's decisions laid down in the past, or laid down by present authority? The second course seems more congenial to a free society."

2014-01-17-occupysussexgeoffreyrobertsonqc.jpg If he had succeeded, Sussex University would be an example to us all. However, it's not. It's the sort of campus whose current managers behave so outrageously - and so contrary to Lord Fulton's ideals of freedom and tolerance - that they inspired two of the world's top human rights barristers (Geoffrey Robertson QC, pictured, and Paul Bowen QC) to come and fight them, for free, in what Bowen described as an "important free speech case".

How did a British university get to the stage of inspiring such anger and contempt from someone like Geoffrey Robertson, the man who organised war-crimes trials in Sierra Leone, that he would be prepared to spend days of his time working unpaid, dealing with petty academic administrators, instead of making the big bucks in Strasbourg?

Let's look at what they did wrong. Sussex management is disciplining five students, with charges ranging from "organising petition for students", "using a loudhailer to encourage protestors" and even - making one question whether we've been conned into paying £9,000 a year to attend a primary school - "being silly and acting up".

As if this seeming unawareness of the concept of free speech wasn't enough, Sussex's disciplinary procedure would make Kim Jong-un blush. The hearings are all in secret, allegedly to protect witnesses' confidentiality... which is interesting given that all of the witnesses in this case waived their anonymity in favour of open justice.

Worse, the panel was chaired by Professor Michael Davies, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, who was instrumental in introducing the policy against which students were campaigning, and who publicly criticised their protests.

How anyone could think for a second that this was a good idea and compliant with the principles of natural justice is unclear. Fortunately the remaining two members of the panel - art history lecturer Liz James and students' union president Kelly McBride - agreed that he should be deposed, and postponed the hearings until a proper chair could be appointed (by the Vice-Chancellor, of course, in another impartial twist to the affair).

But this isn't the point. The point is that these things were done in the first place. And in fact, the University is still petulantly upholding its position: in a press statement, a spokesperson defended the flawed choice of chair, saying, "The panel were considering allegations of specific breaches of discipline. They were not being asked to make judgments about the issues over which the protests took place." It appears that they genuinely do not understand the concept of justice being seen to be done.

Their statement ended with an unapologetic note of doom: "The case in relation to the students still needs to be heard."

A few paragraphs ago, I quoted Lord Fulton's ideal of 'a new university'. "The teacher's responsibility for the future," he continued, "is not discharged until he has done all that can be done to raise the powers of the individuals committed to his charge to their highest capacity, in the confidence that, if they have been so prepared, the future which they shape will be the best attainable."

Gendered language aside, Fulton's heart was definitely in the right place. And if the future that Sussex graduates shape is "the best attainable", if it does excel in freedom and tolerance and justice and goodwill, it will be in spite of, and not because of, the example of how to behave in a democracy we are being set by those who are supposed to be our teachers.