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Stand-off continues over restructuring plans

Students take part in a Sussex Not For Sale rally earlier this year (photo: Daisy Witcheloe)

Students take part in a Sussex Not For Sale rally earlier this year (photo: Daisy Witcheloe)

Meetings have been held (and missed), decision-making groups set up, positions filled, petitions signed and poll results counted. The result? For better or worse, the University of Sussex is rapidly, drastically changing.

Proponents of the coming structural changes claim that they are necessary to “support the growth agenda” designed by the Vice Chancellor Executive Group (VCEG) and will ensure that the University of Sussex continues to attract students, their money, and more “research income”. It is a process to ensure future revenues, through the adoption of models that will emulate conventional business practice. This is a time when millions were wiped from Sussex’s accounts after the collapse of Iceland’s national bank, leaving the University in an undeniably tricky financial situation; money is an issue, perhaps more than ever.

Opposition groups claim that the “massive changes” heading for Sussex are antagonistic to the academic freedom of our institution, haven’t been properly costed, were undemocratically planned and are being executed in ways that have “overturned the established procedures.” They claim that the restructuring is symptomatic of a creeping nationwide trend, the marketisation of education, and will mark the beginning of Sussex being run “like a factory”, as opposed to a place of learning.

A key part of the restructuring process is the creation of twelve new schools, including a new business school. The bi-monthly “New Schools Update” e-newsletter produced by university claims that the “creation of the new schools at Sussex is designed to support the longer-term growth and development of the University.”

One Sussex academic said that the forthcoming creation, merging and splitting of departments will “cause a fuss,” but also that his department “will not change so much; we’ll still be teaching the same things.” Many others have expressed doubts, saying that the ways in which these schools will be run will be detrimental to academic freedoms. 150 Sussex academics have already publicly opposed the creation of the schools.

Each of the twelve schools will be run by a newly appointed head, who will be in the post for at least five years, as opposed to the usual system of yearly rotation for department heads. Opposition group, SussexNot4Sale claim on their website that these “super-departments” will erode “the democratic decision-making procedures at Sussex.” One spokesperson claims that the new 5-year system was designed to attract applicants who are “career and management minded”, and will be more prepared to teach a syllabus geared towards management and business interests.

‘Opposition groups claim that the “massive changes” will mark the beginning of Sussex being run “like a factory”’

The application process for these positions was dogged by controversy. On 6 October The Badger reported that the applicants were short listed by the VCEG with little consultation with departmental representatives, and that the applicants were not allowed to give a presentation to their prospective colleagues, all of which contravened the usual process for academic recruitment.

Jane Sommerville, the director of human relations at Sussex, responded by saying that no regulations were broken during the search for new deans, and that typical aspects of such applications such as presentations were only informal and non-statutory.

The continuing controversy looks increasingly like an insoluble ideological stand off. On the one side are those that claim that Sussex needs to embrace good business practice to ensure its continued success, and even long term survival. This belief chimes with the government’s stance on higher education, with David Lammy, the new higher education minister, saying that universities will inevitably have to start functioning in line with market models.

In the other corner, a hefty contingent of Sussex academics and students believe that the world of education should be kept apart far from the exigencies of the market. They believe that when these spheres are brought together, the most important and definitive aspects of institutions like ours are brought in danger of being eroded.

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