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Management back-tracks over student suspensions

Last Wednesday 10 March, six students formerly suspended from the University of Sussex had their penalisations modified so as to permit them to continue with their academic studies.

Around 600 students rallied outside Sussex House last Thursday 11 March to protest against management’s decision to suspend six students following the previous week’s occupation. Photo: Sam Waterman

The students, dubbed ‘The Sussex Six’, were initially suspended on Friday 5 March by Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing. They each received a letter from the university stating they had been “positively identified” by the management as “leading participants” of the Stop the Cuts rally and occupation of Sussex House earlier that week.

Farthing imposed the suspensions with immediate effect under Statute V.4, which states: “I have the power to suspend or exclude a student.”

The statute makes the provision that the vice-chancellor “may refuse to admit any person as a student of the university without assigning any reason, and may suspend any person from any class or classes, and may exclude any person from any part of the university or its precincts.”

The Sussex Six comprises solely of third years and postgraduates. Originally, the six students were to be banned from entering the university premises for 30 working days, thus prohibiting their participation in academic activities, including teaching and assessments. Their IT facilities were also withdrawn with instant effect.

However, last Wednesday, Academic Registrar Owen Richards issued a letter to the individuals involved, detailing adjustments to the terms and conditions of their suspension and exclusion.

Richards explained that, following Farthing’s consideration, the students were now to be granted access to lectures, seminars and “supervision sessions” scheduled on campus.

They have also been readmitted access to the library, Study Direct resources, Falmer House, and their respective school offices in order to submit assessed work.

However, the letter concludes with a warning that the students must agree to “limit their presence on campus” and, “to take part in no other activities at the university outside those specified within this letter.”

The suspensions have outraged hundreds of students, who have rallied in solidarity with those affected. One such support group, ‘Reinstate the Sussex Six’, described the suspensions as “a politically motivated attack by the management on six students who are being scapegoated for the actions of many.” The group has called for an immediate and unconditional lift on the suspensions.

Around 600 students rallied outside Sussex House last Thursday to show solidarity for The Sussex Six and to protest against the vice-chancellor’s financial cuts at the university.

This was followed by a 300-strong student sit-in in lecture theatre Arts A2, during which students demanded for a member of the management to collect their petition, which had over 1500 signatures.

It requested the unconditional reinstatement of all those suspended and was collected at 6.30pm by Academic Registrar Owen Richards and Registrar and Secretary John Duffy.

The students taking part in the sit-in read each demand out loud to Richards and Duffy, and vowed to remain in the lecture theatre until the university responds to their demands.

Following Farthing’s modifications to the terms of the sanctions, University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU) President, Tom Wills, commented: “It is clear that the suspensions are political and designed to restrict the civil liberties of the students. We must continue to demand that the students are unconditionally reinstated.”

It is believed that Farthing changed tact due to mounting pressure from the Sussex University and College Union (UCU), local councillors, and members of the faculty and students.

Last week, Sussex UCU issued the following statement condemning the suspensions: “The summary suspension of students is a disproportionate response, serving to inflict significant harm to the education of the students concerned and restricting their civil liberties.”

“We urge the vice-chancellor to lift the suspensions with immediate effect so as to enable the students to continue their studies and to exercise their human rights; and to expedite any disciplinary procedures that may be pending.”

Three Green Party councillors also questioned Michael Farthing’s decision in open emails to him.

Cllr Pete West wrote: “I find the move to suspend students extraordinary and worryingly inflammatory.”

Cllr Bill Randall said: “I am disturbed to hear that six students were suspended from your university on Friday for engaging in legitimate protest against education cuts. The decision appears to be arbitrary and was made without any explanation.”

Following receipt of the academic registrar’s letter, one member of The Sussex Six told the Badger: “It seems to me that the management is trying to defuse the situation by pretending they’re actually making concessions, when they are still taking away our civil liberties.”

“They’re not actually proposing anything new, except trying to save themselves from an embarrassing situation.”

USSU is currently seeking advice from the civil rights group Liberty. The union claims that the conditions imposed on The Sussex Six by the management conflict with Article 10 of the Human Rights Act: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by a public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

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