11 Views

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. 

Get the best viral stories straight into your inbox!

Don't worry, we don't spam

Leave a Reply

Join the Badger Team

Apply today!

Latest Posts

The Russian State Ballet of Siberia’s Cinderella review
Arts, Film & Theatre
10 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
10 views

The Russian State Ballet of Siberia’s Cinderella review

Georgia Grace - February 23, 2018

The Russian State Ballet of Siberia came to the Theatre Royal Brighton this week with a trio of classic ballet performances to impress a range of audiences.…

Billionaire builds colossal 10,000 year clock
Science, Science & Technology
21 views
Science, Science & Technology
21 views

Billionaire builds colossal 10,000 year clock

Luke Richards - February 23, 2018

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has gone ahead with a plan to build a giant clock to promote long term thinking. The clock's design should allow it to…

Neuroscience: it must be love on the brain
Science, Science & Technology
23 views
Science, Science & Technology
23 views

Neuroscience: it must be love on the brain

Luke Richards - February 23, 2018

If you're madly in love, I'd like to ask you to take a moment to consider what exactly is happening inside your brain. Love is a many-chemical…

Rockets and technopoltics: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy
Science, Science & Technology
39 views
Science, Science & Technology
39 views

Rockets and technopoltics: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy

Luke Richards - February 23, 2018

The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could become a defining feature in humanity's exploration of space, but this impressive technical feat opens up a new frontier of…

Should the monarchy be abolished?
News
17 views
News
17 views

Should the monarchy be abolished?

Will Cronk - February 23, 2018

YES William Cronk Since the time of Alfred the Great, this country has had a monarch of some form or another. The monarchy has provided stability and…

News, Podcast
18 views

News Round Up: UCU strike updates, tuition fees and more

William Singh - February 23, 2018

In this news round up of the week, Will and Deniz catch you up on everything going on around campus. Thanks for listening and tune in next…

Academic Armchair- iObjectify: self- and other-objectification on Grindr
Features, Top Stories
17 views
Features, Top Stories
17 views

Academic Armchair- iObjectify: self- and other-objectification on Grindr

Devin Thomas - February 23, 2018

The Badger Features Team interviewed Sussex’s Yasin Koc about his work on the psychological factors behind Grindr. He posits that use of the app is associated with…

The Badger Reviews: Derry Girls
Arts, Film & Theatre
23 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
23 views

The Badger Reviews: Derry Girls

Sophie Coppenhall - February 22, 2018

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MwnpSEzprQ[/embedyt] This week, Sophie our film editor, reviews season one of Derry Girls. Have you seen it? What did you think? Leave us a comment on…

Arts, Film & Theatre
34 views

Krater’s Valentine’s Day Special review

Daniel Green - February 21, 2018

Love was in the air at a Valentine’s special of Krater Comedy Club last Wednesday and, despite the pouring rain outside, Komedia was packed full of people…

‘Paws for Pensions’ among strike event schedule
Campus News, News
35 views
Campus News, News
35 views

‘Paws for Pensions’ among strike event schedule

William Singh - February 21, 2018

University of Sussex staff are hosting a full slate of events on strike days, including talks, teach-ins, and even a day to bring along your puppers. Members…

Exploring Mumbai Street Food
Lifestyle
33 views
Lifestyle
33 views

Exploring Mumbai Street Food

Louisa Streeting - February 21, 2018

Mumbai is a place that assaults the senses; an array of smells you’ve never smelt before, vibrant colours, and constant noises from the surge of tourists and…

Comment, Opinion
36 views

Comment Cast: Misogyny In Hollywood

Will Cronk - February 21, 2018

In the is episode, Will and Sophie discuss misogyny in film and tv. For more, pick up a badger around campus or read it online. Tune in…

Students need to support the UCU strike
Comment, Opinion
47 views
Comment, Opinion
47 views

Students need to support the UCU strike

Johnbosco Nwogbo - February 20, 2018

The question of whether or not the current UCU strike is justified is an easily settled one, if one took a broad view. According to the Joseph…

Women’s suffrage 100 years on: what’s changed?
Features, Top Stories
38 views
Features, Top Stories
38 views

Women’s suffrage 100 years on: what’s changed?

Roisin McCormack - February 20, 2018

As it reaches a century since the defining moments of women’s suffrage, Roisin McCormack looks into how much things have really changed. Is a celebration of the…

Retrospective: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Punch Drunk Love’ (2002)
Arts, Film & Theatre
29 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
29 views

Retrospective: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Punch Drunk Love’ (2002)

Gabriel Ross - February 20, 2018

During a 2002 interview with Charlie Rose, when asked whether he is going to take some time off, Adam Sandler promptly replies, “I don’t really wanna have…

News
51 views

Live: Students’ Union decides on UCU strike backing

William Singh - February 19, 2018

U.S.S.U-Turn: 54 students decide stance for 17,000
Campus News, News
67 views
Campus News, News
67 views

U.S.S.U-Turn: 54 students decide stance for 17,000

Jordan Wright - February 19, 2018

On Monday 19th February, the Students’ Union Council will vote on whether or not to support the national Univerity  and College Union (UCU) strike action that is…

The Wombats: ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’ review
Arts, Music
35 views
Arts, Music
35 views

The Wombats: ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’ review

Matthew Nicholls - February 19, 2018

Three years after their last release, The Wombats are back with their long awaited fourth album ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’. Since 'Glitterbug' reached number 5…

Artist Focus: Ella Barkhouse
Artist Focus, Arts
46 views
Artist Focus, Arts
46 views

Artist Focus: Ella Barkhouse

Louisa Hunt - February 19, 2018

Ella Barkhouse is a second-year Brighton student, studying Fine Art: Critical Practice course. Her work ranges across all sorts of media, from some more traditional writing, drawing…

The ultimate LGBTQ+ books guide this February
Books
76 views
Books
76 views

The ultimate LGBTQ+ books guide this February

Shiri Reuben - February 19, 2018

  Throughout the month of February, LGBT History Month aims to promote tolerance and spread awareness of the historical and present-day prejudices faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual…