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The Politics of Student Life

A selective study of student politics at The University of Sussex from its beginnings to the present day.

Whether facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square or police gunfire at Kent State, student activism functions as a symbol for profound political transformation. Students have actually played a substantial political role in the last century, even to the point of toppling governments, as in Cuba or Czechoslovakia.

Since it’s opening in 1961 The University of Sussex has not been without its own pockets of student resistance. Early politics at Sussex manifested as broad support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, anti-apartheid solidarities, and campaigns for the local left-leaning Labour MP. While not supporting white supremacy and encouraging people to vote Labour hardly constitutes radicalism, Sussex at this time was considered a relatively progressive institution.

With 1968 came occupations around the country and the uprising of workers and students in France. This is traditionally thought of as a year of change, with a marked shift towards confrontations with the establishment. Reverberations from abroad were felt on February 21st 1968 when there was a ‘teach-in’ concerning the war in Vietnam, which included the burning of an American Flag, prompting a flustered Tory MP in the Daily Telegraph to denounce Sussex as a “hotbed for communism”. This quote fits nicely within a wider popular political discourse that conceives of the university as a kind of tactical asset in a war of ideologies. Arguably this is because of the unique position of the university itself as a kind of fulcrum – since their establishment in the middle-ages universities have challenged cities as centres of activity. With the explosion of higher education post-1945 you suddenly have thousands of people released from the formal constraints of school and home, coming from all over – from different kinds of national and/or class backgrounds – onto campuses to form  large-scale communities. How those students interact or just plain react to the institution they find themselves ensconced can tell us something about a generation’s expectations and capabilities.

Looking at how resistance has manifested in university-based student politics may prove both entertaining and illuminating. A cursory glance into the archives reveals to us there has been a huge amount of exam boycotts, in almost every subject. They are usually accompanied by calls for control of course material; the rights to work collectively rather than alone; or the right not to be assessed (but often the boycotters settle for just less assessment.) The rhetoric that resurfaces most from exam boycotting generally is resistance to having to undergo an arduous examination process, which seems largely pointless and irrelevant to anyone’s actual understanding of the subject – I’m sure this is a feeling that a lot of us can relate to.

We can only imagine what the university management thought, when in 1972, half their first year Biological Sciences students skipped their final exams. More than this they decided not to miss an opportunity to really interact with their course, and turned-up at the end to hand in sheets covered with gentle suggestions on how to improve it for next year.

In the aftermath of the 1972 exam boycotts, a group of supportive faculty got together to form the Radical Faculty Action Group (RFAG). Issue #30 of Focus (an analytical journal produced at Sussex) was given over in its entirety for RFAG. They wrote of exams:

“We recognise that the role assessment plays in the university is one of social control. It is the overriding form of discipline which ultimately forces the student to conform to the already decided upon system of teaching and course structure. Assessment reinforces the hierarchical structure of society as a whole.”

They proposed alternative mode of education would include:

  • Positive discrimination in student admissions in favour of those from ‘deprived’ areas
  • Sussex being a centre for continuous education, open to anyone
  • No compulsory or competitive exams – more collective work
  • Courses growing organically out of problems and interests and crossing traditional boundaries
  • The University being actually interdisciplinary, as it had at its conception (which every subsequent administration since had been so quick to dismantle)

All fine in theory perhaps, but what of change beginning at home? Struggles around living conditions have been a recurring feature of Sussex life with several rent strikes and occupations over the years. A  cursory glance into the archives reveals mentions of rent strikes in 1972, 1973, 1974-75, 1977, 1979, 1982 and 1985, – as well as a smattering of occupations – all concerning the cheaply made, under-available, and over-priced student accommodation. Rent strikes have actually been able to change what was built on campus, and how much was charged to live somewhere; and they were often articulated as part of the housing crises in the country. Today this issue has if anything gained relevancy, when the non-wealthy are being forced out of higher education by soaring accommodation costs.

From the 1980s onwards there has been an irrevocable altering of the terrain in student politics. In Europe and America – with the dismantling of the social-democratic state for profit – ‘public’ institutions such as The University of Sussex have been gradually privatised. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record – frequently posting gigantic losses – and although ‘public’ institutions (such as the university) have a comparatively excellent record – being positive forces for development, knowledge, and social advancement – over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the universities to resemble failed businesses. Alongside its many other achievements, the coalition government took some of the decisive steps in helping to turn some first-rate universities into third-rate companies.

There has of course been resistance. The decision in the autumn of 2010 to treble the student fees – that had only been introduced only in 1998 by the then Labour government – produced a huge student protest. While it was perhaps premature to suggest that the 2010 demonstration would truly reignite the student movement, no-one expected things to fade away from focus so soon after the passing of the higher education ‘reforms’.

The Sussex occupation against privatisation of 2013 was an international cause celebre. When student opinion about privatisation was ignored, a counter-public was established at the top of the Bramber House. The occupation was going when I started at Sussex, and was to this day one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen. Never had I encountered so many amazing folk gathered together from all over, and channelling the kind energy and ideas that could actually bring the world back from the brink. Despite all the hard work that went into it, this potentiality fizzled. Using harassment, pressure, surveillance, and basically waiting them out, management pressed ahead privatising the jobs of university staff.

How come student politics no longer seems to be able to exert the same kind of force on administrations? Well, after the shock of resistance in the seventies, managers have gotten much better at managing. During the Sussex occupation they didn’t hesitate before spending thousands on private security to ware down the occupying students, as well as covering the campus with CCTV to create an atmosphere of intense paranoia. Part of the reason that university administrations have got so bold is their knowledge that students, like people in general, are more distracted, over-stimulated, and anxious than ever. Students come up to university with often unachievable fantasies of the good life— illusions that if they make it through university someone will make good on the promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy—despite evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives comfortable, or “mean something”; even the jobs in the university itself are incredibly precarious.

The contemporary problem is that the education racket often seems designed to produce anxiety in anyone involved with it. One example of this at Sussex is the introduction of ‘compulsory attendance’, a disciplinary mechanism meant to intimidate students into attending class more, as if absenteeism could be cured by fear of discipline. I guess the alternative view I’m proposing is that if you don’t attend class –whether you’re too hungover or nervous, perhaps you’re effectively on strike, dissatisfied that you’re not getting what you want from university?

Student politics is of course alive and well at Sussex, with too many on-going projects to mention. Whether it will gather and exert the same kind of force it has in the past is a question left for the students to answer.

 

Sybil. 

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