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University challenged

 

As a new generation of students’ arrives at ‘liberal-lefty’ Sussex The Badger asks: are they walking into a bohemian wonderland or an institution mirroring an increasingly conservative education system?

Harry Yeates

 Today, presuming you got your paws on the Badger the day of its release (October 1), marks sixteen years since Tony Blair made his now legendary ‘education’ speech. Addressing his fellow Labor MP’s at a party conference Blair said: “Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, education”. For those taking their first steps when Blair was unveiling his master plan, this will be their GCSE year. But soon, just like a Blair promise, GCSEs will be a thing of the past.

Instead, as education secretary Michael Gove recently announced, from 2017 students will sit more ‘rigorous’ end of year exams in the form of the ‘EBacc’ and a qualification which does away with coursework and any subject not deemed ‘academic’ enough.

This means that not only will tomorrow’s teenagers have to deal with all the usual suspects: the acne, the crippling self-doubt and the hormonal imbalances, but they’ll also have the stress of sitting all-or-nothing style exams which favour the academically gifted and shun the artisan and artistically inclined.

However, we do not need to wait five years to start seeing the effects of a more conservative education system, when we can simply take stock of our wonderful Freshers, the first intake of students to part with £9000 per year for the privilege of a higher education.

This new figure is so large it may be hard to put into perspective, but here is a sobering thought: £9000 equates to £300 per university week or a little over £42 per day. Who knows how much you will have spent on your degree in the time it takes you to read this article ? Enough for a copy of the Guardian perhaps, or maybe even a ploughman’s lunch.

However, to the Freshers among you, welcome to Sussex. We are thankful that you’ve joined our undergraduate community, as opposed to bolstering BBC figures which suggest that 50,000 fewer people applied for a university place this year.

No doubt some of you will have taken to the streets to protest the tripling of university fees, and you should know that protesting alongside you were members of your Sussex brethren, defiant and proud. Yet whereas once we rallied, now we are resigned – but what can we do? If we cynically conclude that the government will court but never truly listen to public opinion, we must at least aim to put our own house in order.

Gone are the days when Sussex could stake its claim to being the last defender of a liberal education. After arriving on the scene as the first in a new wave of universities to grace the Swinging Sixties, Sussex soon acquired a reputation for bohemianism – a reputation that has long since endured.

However, a year on from celebrating its fiftieth birthday it often appears to place less emphasis on people growing into free-thinking, well rounded individuals, than it does passing them along a conveyor belt into employment. Certainly with 16-25 year olds reportedly the group worst affected by the recession, no institution should be blamed for trying to equip its students with the skills needed to survive in the world of work.

Indeed it almost makes permissible Sussex’s decision to host seminars on ‘networking’. Yet beyond this function of university remains another: that of delivering a ‘higher education’. Indeed it was to this that novelist and former Oxford don Sir Ken Robinson alluded, when in 2010 he delivered a lecture for ‘Ted talks’ entitled ‘Bring on the learning revolution!’

In his own unique style Robinson said: “The reason so many people are opting out of education is because it does not feed their spirit…we have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education based on linearity and conformity and batching people to a model based more on principles of agriculture; we have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it is an organic process…”

If these words resonate with you then you’re in the right place. It’s the people, not the politics, that define Sussex, and looking around our vibrant campus there remains a student community as dynamic and engaged as ever before.

They embody the ethos captured by our current chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar who, when accepting his honorary position in 2009 said: “I am extremely proud to be associated with a radical, transformational university such as Sussex”. However, as a figurehead whose most prominent role (according to the University’s website) is “as the person who confers degrees on students at the summer and winter graduation ceremonies”, Bhaskar is unlikely to safeguard the qualities he prides Sussex on having.

Instead that responsibility resides with vice-chancellor, Michael Farthing, only he has rather different designs on the University’s future.

Given that official figures place mercantile Mike’s earnings at £227,000 per year, it is perhaps unsurprising that he should be thought of as business minded. Nor is it remarkable that he was met with a frosty reception when addressing students at last year’s graduation ceremony.

Among those donning cap and gown in the summer was Geography student Maggie FitzHerbert, who told The Badger how: “The summer graduation speech was a proud recital of just how good Sussex is. He [Farthing] mentioned that the hike in fees hadn’t deterred applications with no word of assurance that the university would keep it at all affordable… He repeatedly referred to Sussex managing to keep on being excellent despite government cuts… also mentioning the success of Northfields (without a word about the forthcoming closure of East Slope)”. This is noteworthy, of course, as East Slope is the cheapest on-campus accommodation and the newly built Northfields is the most expensive.

At least however Farthing’s speech was consistent with the direction Sussex has been heading this last year. Indeed perhaps the writing was on the wall when half-way through the year a giant banner appeared adorning Brighton station, reading: ‘Choose Business’, with the U and S forming the Sussex logo. Never likely to connect with commuting students taking the train into Falmer, the banner took on a greater poignancy amidst revelations first published in the Daily Telegraph back in June. An unlikely alibi in an article mourning a loss of liberalism, it was the Telegraph that named Sussex one of a handful of University’s guilty of offering international students lower grade tariffs than British students, because of the higher tuition fees they paid. Ironically business courses were singled out in the article as being particularly guilty of the practise meaning that students may well choose ‘US’ for their commercial enterprises. The University’s business motives were also made clear in May, when it published a contract notice in the Journal of the European Union inviting tenders to manage its facilities and catering operations on a cost effective and specialist basis, effective from August 2013. Sussex did promise that it would not make any redundancies but was not able to offer any reassurances that their eventual suitors would feel the same way. So with the Telegraph’s revelations, plans to outsource various departments to private firms and the utterings of our honourable vice-chancellor, it is fair to say that our ‘liberal-minded’ University has dealt us a betrayal of Animal Farm sized proportions. It therefore falls to us, the students, to ensure that Sussex becomes a model of education befitting its forward-thinking public image and not merely a profit making organisation.

However, with the new academic year still very much in its embryonic stages, we need not curse our luck for studying at Sussex, but realise the need to preserve what makes it such a special University. It consistently scores highly in student satisfaction polls, is home to Ultimate Frisbee’s UK champions ‘the Mohawks’, and has a student newspaper called The Badger.

Regrettably however, such triumphs pale into insignificance if we forget the ethos which allowed for such happy, frisbee-throwing journalists. Let us for a moment at least consider the possibility that there is nothing intrinsically bohemian about Sussex at all, other than that it attracts the kind of open-minded, kindred spirits for which the university is now famed.

What this means of course is that in actuality management is powerless compared to the students, the people who pay their wages and legitimise the University as a place of learning not earning.

Indeed, as the University recently announced — albeit not quite in this context – for the first time in its history Sussex now has a student population in excess of 13,000, meaning its top brass are more accountable to us than ever.

Freshers, you are a big part of that 13,000 and it is for you to continue that rich Sussex legacy of challenging the status quo. Only now we must internalise our scrutiny, lest we lose the values that built U.S. Nobody is advocating a futile ‘fight the power’, indiscriminately graffiti-ing anarchy logos all over East Slope (which has been tried) – but rather a way that sees you adequately accounted for.

Protests, sit-ins, marches and representation at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) all constitute viable means. Ultimately however, amidst all the fun, friends and frolicking that will constitute your time at Sussex, remember this – it is your university, make it work for you

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