Last Wednesday 3 March at 12.30pm students occupied Sussex House for five hours in protest against proposed course cuts and job losses. Police in a convoy of vans were called onto campus to contain the occupation and the accompanying rally.
University management seek to reduce the budget for 2009/10 by £3m on a turnover of £160m, with additional savings of up to £5m in 2010/11. As a result, 115 staff across campus face redundancy. A statement from the occupation said: “The job cuts would eradicate the environmental science degree program, and significantly reduce the size of the English, history, and life science departments. The student advice service, the crèche, security services and catering staff also face savage cuts.”
It was alleged that students were searching for documents inside the occupation. One of the occupation organisers stated that the occupation was not aware of, nor did it condone, any such action. The first student to emerge from the building was searched inside a police van, but nothing was found.
A statement from Sussex Police claimed that five members of staff were left inside the building during the occupation. Police attempted to gain entrance to the building to escort staff out but were refused. The occupiers suggested instead that four security staff and a police officer enter but this suggestion was rebuffed. The staff members were able to leave at any time, the students said. However, some students believed the staff remained inside deliberately.
Student Owen Holland, said: “All day long the police were saying they wanted to enter the building with one sergeant and six officers to head up, search the building and escort out the staff that remained inside. The staff member that remained was Roger Morgan, Head of Security. He was claiming he wouldn’t leave because he felt intimidated, but two other members of staff, female, by themselves, walked out down the corridor of students.
“Roger Morgan was choosing to stay inside to give police an excuse to say ‘can we please enter the building’ but there was no way we were going to allow that.” He continued: “The police really forced the conflict here, forced the confrontation”
At 4pm a second demonstration was organized outside the occupation in solidarity, with music from portable speakers. Students attempted to enter the building and were violently rebuffed by police with dogs, pepper spray and batons.
Two students were arrested on charges of assaulting a security guard and assaulting a police officer.
A second student, Patrick Rolfe, said: “This action was response to management’s refusal to consider alternative proposals put by the UCU, student advisors, and the crèche. The actions of the police were shocking, but reflected the tactics taken by management – any alternatives are met by refusal, and ultimately, by violence.”
The students opted to leave the building at around 5.30pm in a group with their faces covered. They merged with the crowd outside.
The protest coincided with the announcement that a UCU ballot had voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action, as well as a national day of action against education cuts.
Michael Farthing, having left the occupied building, was asked for a comment by ‘The Badger’s reporter but declined to acknowledge the reporter’s request or presence.
Sussex Police announced in a statement: “Sussex Police respects the right to peaceful protest, however this incident took place on private property without permission and offences were committed. There was a proportionate police response to prevent a breach of the peace and to deal with any offences against people or property.”
After the protest, Union President Tom Wills received information that University management had taken out an injunction against students. The injunction prohibits “Persons (including students of the University of Sussex) entering or remaining on the campus and buildings of the University of Sussex for the purpose of protest action (without the consent of the University of Sussex).” Statements from Registrar, John Duffy, who remained inside Sussex House during the occupation, accuse students of having “locked key members of staff…into their offices against their will”. Students from the occupation refute this, arguing it was members of University management who were the obstacle in having those staff removed from the building. Injunctions traditionally come before further legal action.
Sussex police were called onto campus at around 12.30pm on Wednesday after around 50 students occupied Sussex House. They bought dogs, pepper spray and batons with them along with at least seven riot vans. They were also accompanied by a controversial Forward Intelligence Team (FIT). The team is engaged in gathering footage of faces and names of all protestors for government databases.
Police formed a line in front of the entrance to the building preventing students rallying outside from gaining access. A group negotiated with the occupiers at the door. At times it appeared police were preparing to storm the building but no move was made.
The police presence grew throughout the afternoon, including a unit from Hastings. The atmosphere became increasingly tense until the second rally met at 4pm. Some students attempted to break the police line and storm the occupied building but were violently pushed back.
At this point police put on full riot gear, including helmets and some armour, and maintained the line. The situation remained until the occupiers opted to leave at around 5.30pm.
One student who was present said: “The police were really friendly when they first arrived, but once the dogs came the atmosphere became really sour. After the violence it was horrible. There were so many, it was ridiculous!”
A police issued statement said: “There was a proportionate police response to prevent a breach of the peace and to deal with any offences against people or property.”
Two students were arrested on charges of common assault against a security guard and one assault of a police officer. The police statement said: “[The security guard] was pushed to the ground as they entered the building”. Both students were released in the early hours of Thursday morning from Hollingbury Police Station.
The student accused of common assault was released with a caution at 2.00am. The second student, charged with assaulting a police officer, was released later at 2.37am on bail until April.
A brief occupation by students of Sussex House ended on Wednesday evening (3 March) as the students left the building.
About 50 students had gained unauthorised access to Sussex House, breaking in via one of the fire exits.
The students barricaded and padlocked a number of doors. The University made clear to the students that they had no right to remain in this space, and asked them to leave.
The University asked the police to attend because of concerns about the safety and security of both staff and students in the building, and about the illegal trespass.
Most staff subsequently were able to leave the building for their own safety. The normal work of the University continued, for example with committees scheduled for Sussex House meeting elsewhere on campus.
However, the action disrupted a wide range of normal services to staff and students that are provided from Sussex House as staff were unable to work in the building. More time is now being taken to deal with the consequences of the occupation, including assessing the damage caused, any items stolen and costs incurred.
John Duffy, Registrar and Secretary, said: “We were clear from the start of this trespass that this was an unnecessary and disruptive action. I want to thank all staff who worked to minimise the disruption caused.
“This trespass has left damage and caused additional costs to the University which we are assessing. Sussex House has now been returned to proper use for our staff and students.”
The students were protesting in relation to a proposal made in November 2009 that involves losing 115 jobs and creating 20 new posts as part of plans for the University’s financial and academic stability. The proposal is still the subject of consultation with the three campus trade unions.
The Registrar and Secretary said: “This occupation and disruption was not necessary in order to express the concerns of any group on campus.
“We are in consultation with the three campus trade unions, and in regular discussion with the Students’ Union. We have many ways in which views are being expressed freely and openly on the proposal we have made.”
At the time the occupying students forced their way into Sussex House, the Vice-Chancellor was elsewhere on campus launching a new leadership programme, which is accredited by the Institute of Leadership & Management.
The 28 undergraduate and postgraduate students who have been successful in gaining places on the programme will be working in teams with some of the University’s leading alumni and will also look at the positive contribution that higher education can make to the most important issues currently facing society.