Former Students’ Union president, Tom Wills offers his take on the radical nature of student activism at Sussex

Sussex activists protest against ‘top-up fees’ in London, 2009.

The University of Sussex is famous for radicalism and rebelliousness. The dons who set the place up were fed up with the intellectual conservatism of Oxbridge and wanted to create a university from scratch to give them the freedom they craved; meanwhile, the campus has been known for militant student protest since the sixties. But is the free-thinking reputation deserved and if so, where does the Sussex air of defiance come from?

Central to the university founders’ ground-breaking vision was interdisciplinarity. Conventional divides between subjects were thrown out. Academics from different areas were brought together in schools of study revolving around themes which crossed the normal academic boundaries. The aim was to avoid the assumptions and prejudices of the academic establishment and provide students with an education unlike at any other university.

In the early days, it seems the institution’s forward-thinking agenda sat comfortably with the aspirations of the student body. A Guardian newspaper report on students’ attitudes at the University of Sussex of 1964 noted the unusually tranquil relationship between the Students’ Union and the administration: “The traditional view of a students’ union executive is of a bunch of ambitious bureaucrats embroiled in ceaseless committee struggles with the authorities.

It doesn’t apply here. There are delays and confusions but only in very rare instances is this because of a direct disagreement with the Vice-Chancellor.” Perhaps it was also a product of the university’s more favourable financial circumstances. A book released to mark the university’s 25th anniversary describes the time as “The years of plenty.” One student told the Guardian: “Here there are a damn sight better things to do than play petty bolshies. Not with Fulton [the Vice-Chancellor], he’s marvellous.”

Of course, the Sussex student demographic of 1964 was somewhat different from today. The university was cheerfully nicknamed ‘Balliol-by-the-Sea’ after the liberal Oxford University college and was seen as a modern challenger to the elite universities. Sussex came at the very beginning of the expansion of universities in Britain, when higher education was still an opportunity afforded only to a privileged few: in 1962-63, there were only 129,000 full-time university places in Britain (and just 400 at Sussex).

Today there are ten times that number. At that time not only was university education free, those who were lucky enough to get places received grants to cover their living expenses. No wonder they weren’t complaining.

In spite of the initial harmony, the Guardian reckoned the place was already getting a reputation: “Among the early objections to the notion of university here was that Brighton, being a reputed haunt of bizarre pleasures and lecherous indulgence, was not a fit place for scholars […] Sussex is not in, or at, Brighton, yet it has been spuriously invested with a vicarious notoriety.”

Over the years Brighton’s character has surely rubbed off on the University of Sussex. The city’s reputation dates back to the 19th century when the Prince of Wales found Brighton a discreet location to meet his mistresses. The former fishing village quickly became a fashionable destination and has connoted permissiveness and, tolerance ever since. It is a place where boundaries were pushed back, and this sense of challenging convention and being part of the avant-garde forms a proud part of Brighton’s identity.

But other developments would prove that the University of Sussex did not need to ride on the reputation of its infamous neighbouring city. For some students, the brave new world of the University of Sussex was far from satisfactory. In the early days there was no purpose-built accommodation for students – the majority stayed in private homes and guest houses in Brighton.

In anticipation of the friction that could arise as a result of the new influx of students living cheek-by-jowl with locals, the university administration had enforced a curfew – yes, a curfew – on students, compelling them to be back at their residences no later than midnight and banning visitors after 11pm.

Although it sounds positively draconian today (not to mention a sure breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) this was nothing extraordinary by the standards of university discipline at the time. When a group of subversive students defied the rules and stayed out into the small hours, the university exercised its powers and suspended them for two weeks. It was to be the first of many confrontations between the university administration and a student body which is not afraid to assert itself in whatever way it sees fit.

By 1968 the fervour of student protest sweeping the world had reached Sussex. Anger over the Vietnam war was the catalyst for demonstrations on many campuses. Newspapers spoke forebodingly of the rise of ‘’student power’’. In February Sussex students threw red paint at a visiting US embassy official, an incident which put Sussex firmly on the map of student revolt. The two students held responsible were suspended and a campaign followed to get them reinstated, which saw supporters burn British and American flags in protest.

Vietnam, nuclear disarmament, housing and student grants were recurring themes of student protest in the decades that followed. In the 21st century, with many Sussex students having been born after the end of the Cold War, nuclear disarmament has faded from the student consciousness, while anger over the activities of western troops in Vietnam has given way to Iraq and now Afghanistan. Student funding remains as contentious an issue as ever – and one set to reach a flashpoint again this year as the government announces the outcome of its review into tuition fees.

Successive reforms to the university have diluted the original vision of interdisciplinarity and intellectual freedom. Today there is more pressure than ever on academics to appeal to the corporate world as government funding gets squeezed. The Students’ Union has faced attempts by the university authorities to dampen its radical flame, be it by constitutional reform, legal action or the ultimate sanction – withdrawal of its annual funding, which is controlled by the university. In spite of all this, recent years have proved that Sussex retains its radical spirit. Although student protest is not and never has been confined to Sussex – dozens of campuses have seen similar episodes over the years – it does seem to happen here more often and on a grander scale.

This should not be surprising when being at the cutting edge is part of the university’s DNA. The influence of broad-minded Brighton probably plays a part, as does the intellectual radicalism of many Sussex lecturers. Who knows what this year will bring? Only one thing is certain: la lutte continue!

Timeline

August 1961 – University founded under Vice-Chancellor John Fulton.

May 1963 – Several students and two members of faculty are arrested at a nuclear disarmament protest.

July 1966 – 200 students demonstrate outside the Sussex graduation ceremony as PM Harold Wilson receives a honorary degree, protesting against his support for the Vietnam war.

March 1968 – 600 students and forty academics begin a 72-hour fast to protest the Vietnam war.

June 1968 – A Students’ Union meeting demands the resignation of VC Asa Briggs unless he repudiates reports that he argued foreign students should be politically screened before coming to UK universities.

March 1970 – 200 students occupy the administration building over fears the university is keeping records of students’ political activities.

January 1973 – The Students’ Union organises a rent strike in protest at rent increases.

October 1973 – 80 students stage a week-long occupation of the university senate chamber in protest at the lack of student accommodation.

October 1973 – Sussex student Peter Hain (now a Labour MP) loses his appeal against a £200 fine he received at the Old Bailey for supposedly conspiring to disrupt a  Davis Cup tennis match between Britain and South Africa as an anti-apartheid protest.

June 1974 – Students block the latest round of rent increases by threatening to occupy the university Senate meeting where they are due to be ratified.

February 1978 – “Fuck the Students’ Union” – the reported words of a university manager to the union’s Vice-President after she turned up uninvited to a university committee meeting. The union had been campaigning for a student place on university committees, a demand which the university Senate had accepted “in principle.”

April 1980 – A Sussex student is jailed for 7 days for throwing bags of flour at National Front marchers in Brighton.

October 1980 – Sussex University puts up 300 young unemployed people who have marched from South Wales to Brighton for a ‘Right to Work’ demonstration outside the Tory party conference.

November 1981 – David Owen MP, a founder of the SDP (a Labour party splinter group), chases a tomato-throwing student out of a Sussex lecture theatre after being hit three times during a talk.

December 1981 – A disciplinary hearing for four students blamed for the tomato-throwing incident is abandoned after 50 students occupy the room where the hearing is due to take place.

January 1986 – Sussex staff join a national strike over job cuts.

January 1987 – 200 students hold a ten-day sit-in over plans to cut 90 jobs.

September 1998 – Workers’ rights campaigners occupy Shoreham Docks where Sussex student Simon Jones was killed in an accident on his first day in a labouring job. He had been sent to the job with no training by an employment agency.

April 1999 – Students occupy Sussex House demanding no student is expelled if they are unable to pay the newly introduced tuition fees.

May 2006 – A high profile student-staff campaign forces the university to abandon plans to close the Chemistry department.

August 2006 – Students vote to boycott Coca-Cola in protest at the violent repression of Colombian Coca-Cola workers.

November 2006 – Students stage an overnight sit-in in the library demanding 24-hour opening.

January 2009 – Students occupy Arts A2 lecture theatre in protest at the Israeli attack on Gaza.

October 2009 – Students vote to boycott Israeli goods.

February 2010 – Students occupy the Bramber House conference centre in protest at proposed job cuts.

March 2010 – Students occupy Sussex House and later Arts A2 lecture theatre as part of the anti-cuts campaign.

March 2010 – Lecturers and support staff stage a one-day strike against compulsory redundancies.

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