06/12/2013 05:55 GMT | Updated 04/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Something Rotten in the State of Sussex

Imagine what would happen to Britain if the Home Secretary had the power to expel anyone from the country "without assigning any reason."

Then imagine what it would be like now if the power had always existed: no dissenting voices left, no debate; anyone in a minority either too intimidated to speak out or already deported.

That would be ridiculous, wouldn't it! But that's exactly the power that the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University used this week to suspend five students and ban them from setting foot on our campus.


Two of the 'Sussex Five' are part-time elected officers of our Students' Union, and all five of them were singled out for their involvement in protests against the recent privatisation of a number of campus services.

Literally at same moment as the full-time Students' Union officers were in a meeting with University leaders on 'how to improve our partnership', Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Farthing was signing notices excluding five (still paying) students from campus. They had no warning. They were not invited to submit a defence. They were served with the documents and that was that.

The notices provided no evidence, no end-point, no indication of when or how the suspension might be lifted. No formal disciplinary proceedings have been brought, so the case against the five is not going to be tested by an impartial panel, as per the University's normal procedure.

The Vice-Chancellor's power to suspend anyone "without assigning any reason" is a bizarrely wide one. How could those against whom it is used put together an appeal, if they have had no indication of what it is they have done wrong? How can the power be exercised in an impartial way when its targets were selected for protesting against a policy of - you guessed it - the Vice-Chancellor?

US Supreme Court Judge Abe Fortas once ruled that while educational institutions have disciplinary powers, they must not use these to become "enclaves of totalitarianism."

The fact that he even had to make this ruling was a sign that all was not well in 1960s America, and the fact that I even have to write this article shows that something is rotten in the state of Sussex.

Apart from the University's obvious and totally avoidable tactical error - keeping privatisation issues on the agenda, creating five martyrs and even prompting students who had previously been skeptical of the protests to come on-side - it boggles the mind that they should even want to stifle an atmosphere of dialogue and debate.

What is the point of higher education if not to encourage discussion? As Aditya Chakrabortty wroten in the Guardian last month, people who are currently students will one day be running the country. "You might want these future leaders to be questioning and concerned about society."

Professor Farthing clearly doesn't, and will use his sweeping magisterial powers to pursue his vision of a docile, obedient and reverent university instead.

However, we do not have to let things be like this. It's obviously awful that Sussex has gone too far, suspending students elected to represent their peers and attempting to intimidate others into silence.

But it can also be a good thing: we can take this opportunity to wake up, highlight unfair abuses of Vice-Chancellorial power and use our university campuses as spaces for good-spirited intellectual discussion whether The Management likes it or not.