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Sussex’s radical history

Sussex advertises itself with the slogan ‘Let’s Change Things’, and for good reason. The university was set up in the 1960s to provide a new type of education which would go above and beyond the stuffy traditions of Oxbridge and red brick establishments – and from then on, it’s stayed different. Charlotte Tuxworth-Holden guides us through her personal take on Sussex’s radical history…

In 1962, a year after the University of Sussex received its Royal Charter, 400 forward-thinking students arrived on the newly built campus. Just as first years will do this week, they walked through the Falmer House archway and into the centre of the striking brutalist building: a concrete beauty. The architect Sir Basil Spence’s innovative designs reflected the ideals of the university, intending to foster a new kind of academic environment, one of innovative thinking and heightened social consciousness.

Sussex was the first of a group of ‘new universities’ founded in the 1960s aiming to break away from the established red brick institutions and pioneer a fresh and progressive approach to tertiary education. The collective of seven institutions sought to produce students who were not only specialists in their chosen field but cultivated thinkers who strove to search for the truth beyond specific disciplines. Spence’s buildings reflected this ethos in their modernity. The Meeting House, for example, was opened in 1966, and was intended to host students of all faiths – it was decided in the spirit of inclusivity not to limit access to Sussex’s focal place of worship solely to those of a Christian faith, as was true at many other UK universities at the time.

In it’s first decade, the university grew rapidly, attracting progressive students as well as prominent academics from across the UK, Europe and the world. One of these was the late David Hocock, who stands among the most influential anthropologists of the last century. He left the halls of Oxford in 1968 to join the Sussex faculty, having become tired of the manners and traditions of the elite university.

Attracted to the thriving intellectual and social environment that Sussex had to offer, Hocock felt it was the ideal place for him to carry out his research on the diaspora of the Indian state of Gujurat. Part of Sussex’s radical mission was to challenge existing conceptions of race, ethnicity, culture and identity in the postcolonial world – he and other forward-thinking academics wanted to contribute to this radical new school of thought.

Hocock went on to become dean of the School of African and Asian Studies (AFRAS), which had been founded in 1964. A main focus of this prestigeous centre was to challenge mainstream academic theories on socio-political issues that had previously been taken as a given. It also sought to host academics and students who had direct experience of the places they studied, reducing the ‘ivory tower’ perspective which they saw was often produced in other institutions.

South African academic Guy Routh joined AFRAS after being forced to flee his country due to his Communist Party membership. The school also hosted young scholars and freedom fighters from African independence movements. Thabo Mbeki, who later succeeded Nelson Mandela as the second post-apartheid South African President, arrived at AFRAS to study economics in 1963 after escaping the oppressive white-supremacist regime.

AFRAS was part of Sussex’s unconventional ‘Schools of Study’ structure, designed to challenge the usual arts and science divisions in education. One of the university’s founding principles was to foster a disciplinary diversity, for specialisation was insufficient if not understood in the wider context of society.

My own mother, Nicola Tuxworth, started her International Relations degree at Sussex in 1978, and the new design of learning was one of the things that attracted her. “After you did your core subjects, you could choose from a rich array of courses,” she says. Sussex was at its founding all about going beyond your field of study to understand your specialisation in its crucial context.

Martin Macdonald, a former Sussex student who is now a teacher, labelled his university experience “a revolution in the way I thought”.

Today, the vibrant and interdisciplinary School structure remains a key element attracting undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The Sussex mission to cultivate thought across disciplines has continued to produce a politically active and radical student body. Throughout the years, students have stood up against the forces of colonialism and capitalism that enforce inequality both nationally and internationally.

In June 1964, Nelson Mandela and other members of activist group the African National Congress awaited their sentencing for charges of sabotage against the South African government’s apartheid regime. Student supporters of Mandela at Sussex marched from Brighton to London to protest the expected death penalty for the defendants, one of whom was the father of a Sussex student. They joined other protestors outside the house of the South African consulate in Trafalgar Square, London. The announcement of life imprisonment rather than execution was seen as a victory for the international campaign, and Sussex students were proud to have contributed to this as part of the wider anti-apartheid movement.

1968 saw the rise of the international anti-war campaign that protested the United States-led conflict in Vietnam. A ‘teach-in’ was held at the University of Sussex in February, where an American flag was burnt. Another infamous act of protest of that year has become known as the ‘red-paint incident’. Sussex students threw paint at a US embassy official who was giving a lecture on campus, the colour being both the trademark of socialist political alternatives and a symbol of the blood spilt in the Vietnam conflict.

Sussex students and faculty were also heavily involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament throughout the Cold War era. As early as 1963, multiple students and faculty members were arrested at a nuclear disarmament protest, and action continued into the 1980s, with students going to women’s peace camp Greenham Common in the early ‘80s.

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, rent strikes protesting both living costs on campus and the wider housing crisis in Britain were recurrent at Sussex.

The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher also met consistent opposition from Sussex students, who were enraged by funding cuts and rising unemployment levels: the neoliberal policies instated by the Prime Minister were against everything the University stood for. In 1986, Sussex staff joined the national strike over job cuts, and the following year students organised a ten-day sit-in over plans to let go of ninety university employees.

The 21st century presented new problems for universities, and Sussex continued to fight against them. 2010 saw the rise of tuition fees to £9,000 a year, and protests swept the nation, gaining international attention. Sussex students organised in Brighton and marched in solidarity with the prospective students who would be affected by the new extortionate cost of tertiary education. One of the founding principles of ‘new universities’ in the 60s was to reduce elitism at universities and widen access to education, and the rise was seen as an indicator of a return to an emphasis on wealth as an indicator to enrolling in university.

2013 was also a major year for the Sussex protest movement. Proposals to privatise catering and estate management services across the university were met with solid opposition. The Bramber House conference centre was occupied by students from February until they were evicted in April.

The university proceeded with the outsourcing proposals, much to the discontent of many members of both students and staff. The former East Slope porter Jon C. wrote an open letter to then Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing, announcing his resignation and expressing his “displeasure at…[Farthing’s] dictatorial management style and ideological commitment to the systematic dismantling and privatisation of services built up over generations for the public good”. His letter also expressed faith in Sussex students to continue to stand up against the capitalist forces that threaten education.

From the start, Sussex University set out to challenge dominant ideologies both through academia and activism. In fact, the two have been consistently interconnected.

It is no wonder, then, that this great institution has faced criticism in mainstream circles. In 1968, a Tory MP writing for The Telegraph labelled Sussex a “hotbed for Communism” following the Vietnam War teach-in.

My mother remembers her grammar school didn’t want her to go to Sussex because they thought it too left-wing – “girls from my school were expected to go to UCL or Manchester. In a last-ditch attempt to stop me from attending, my teachers told me the radically-designed university buildings didn’t have any windows!”

Sussex is proud of these criticisms – radical ideals cause a nervousness in the establishment. Throughout the struggles this institution has faced, its egalitarian spirit has remained.

Sussex now welcomes a new Vice-Chancellor who has talked excitedly of the University’s progressive roots.

The recent decision by the UK to exit the European Union is an indicator of a dangerous rise in isolationism across the globe. I believe that in this environment, the university must continue to promote the internationalism and inclusivity of its founding ideology. It’s an exciting time to be a Sussex student.

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