Perhaps too often, university life is described as being comparable to existing within a bubble. A bit like ‘Big Brother’.
Throughout your time as a student, you will most likely tire of hearing this analogy being used as you eventually grow immune to the accusation that it leaves students somewhat detached from reality.
But need this necessarily be a negative criticism?
What seldom ceases to surprise is that actually this metaphor is not always used pejoratively but, sometimes, complimentarily.
As universities go, Sussex in particular is known for its vibrant political atmosphere of far-left activism and liberalism; it is an undisputable truth that the reputation that Sussex currently holds is hard-earned. And all too often, the benefits of this kind of environment are overlooked.
This academic year heralds our institution’s fiftieth birthday, undoubtedly providing a fantastic opportunity to reflect upon its colourful history. As such, over the next few weeks we will be speaking to some the Students’ Union’s most notorious past Presidents to see what their spin is on life within the microcosm of Sussex campus and, of course, the student movement itself.
This week we speak to Dan Glass, who was President in the academic year commencing 2006, and is now a climate change activist within ‘Plane Stupid’, a campaign group aiming to take direct action against the growth of the aviation industry due to its impact on climate change.
As well as fighting against climate change, Glass feels passionate about opposing education cuts which he feels contribute to making university accessible only to the privileged few: “University education is a political process by the very systems of privilege and access that it reinforces from the outside world … we are made to believe that ‘education…education…education’ is a top political priority [but] bursaries are being cut meaning that only the wealthiest in society are willing to put themselves through crippling debt for years to come.
“Since I have left Sussex, Higher Education has more or less been sold to the highest bidder. Universities have been put on the corporate supermarket shelves, simplified and packaged off to any old corporation who wants to make a quick buck. It is a very sad situation.”
During the last academic year, we at Sussex were among some of the first to be effected by these savage education cuts as Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing announced millions of pounds of cuts to courses and other services. This prompted the ‘Stop the Cuts’ campaign, which saw a wave of occupations and demonstrations across campus and beyond to fight against the perceived injustice. Perhaps most notably, following the suspension of six students who stormed Sussex House (the management’s head-quarters) in an occupation that saw management call riot police against their own students, a meeting of over 800 students voted almost unanimously in favour of a motion of ‘no confidence’ in the Vice-Chancellor. “As ever students and staff at Sussex have not gone without a fight even with all the clever marketing to divert our attention from the real issues at hand,” muses Glass. “The purpose of University is to be ‘critical’ – to read between the lines, become confident in our own sourcing of knowledge and not always believe the hype we are fed. Many people have learnt at Sussex to stand on their own two feet, to challenge seemingly impenetrable power structures and go forth and build movements. The climb to accountability, justice, dignity and recognition in your work at Sussex Campus is merely a practice for the wider world.”
Dan Glass himself rose to national prominence in 2008 when he attempted to superglue himself to the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown as he was presented with an award for his work combating climate change. This was a bid to challenge Brown’s failure to uphold his promises to take climate change seriously.
“This was one of example of challenging the status quo,” he says. “The creative penetration of University policies through protest and occupation toughened me up for challenging the big boys and girls.
“As human beings it is our natural instinct to care about our future, our survival. If you love something about your University experience, you do everything you can to make sure it continues to exist. Your few years at University are a marvellous opportunity to flex your creative, critical and oppositional muscles. When something doesn’t appear right to you, let your voice be heard. Take an active role because one day it may be harder. Repressive government regimes, suppression of civil liberties, judicial systems which protect business first and people second and the squashing of humans fundamental right to protest, make challenging injustice out of University a different ball game altogether.”
It is of course an unfortunate fact that we all have to graduate one day and there is a perception that upon doing so, many of us grow more complacent and less politically active than during our time as a student. We asked Glass if he thinks this is in fact the case and if so, what he thought the reasons for this were: “I do believe that it is easier to see democracy in action on campus. People become very empowered in their beliefs because it is easy to witness change in a microcosm of the wider political environment.
“Whilst people [in wider society] still desperately want to see change, putting your head above the parapet can often lead to intense reactions. This might be why there is the perception that students become less politically active after graduation. It may be harder, but no students like a challenge more than Sussex students. From challenging the IRA peace process to stopping airport runways and climate change [they] utilise their arts, their music, politics and passion to debunk the myth that protests stop at graduation ceremonies.”
So it seems in fact that campus life provides a platform to make an impact on the reality many say it is detached from. It is clear that however segregated from mainstream society and however small the bubble, the student movement is a vital force within the UK and indeed internationally. From challenging South Africa’s Apartheid regime right from the beginning in the sixties to, most recently, mobilising to become a prominent ally in the national fight against savage education cuts, here at Sussex, we as students each have the opportunity to have our political voices heard perhaps for the first time and become a part of something truly massive and it is one that we all, like Dan Glass, can take full advantage of up until graduation and beyond.
“Sussexians have shown they are a force to be reckoned with”, maintains Glass. “From Glasgow (where I now live) all across the island, I constantly hear ‘have you heard what Sussex students have done?’ as the campaigns for free education, against privatisation and many more are held up in high regard. The Students’ Union and those it supports to campaign really are a microcosm of the world upon which we want to exist within … The very existence of the Students’ Union supports and encourages participation in the political system. If there was a place like it, encouraging self-determination, on every British high street, the world would be a better place! Institutions like the Badger also encourage involvement from students and motivate people to decide their own fate. If every day in ‘the Metro’ or ‘the Sun’ we read about the successes of The Suffragettes in fighting for women’s rights or the recent successes of climate change activists to halt the expansion on Heathrow airport and Kingsnorth coal fired power stations – we would see people on mass in the street realising the potential of their own actions. In our media saturated society we must not rely on politicisation, mobilisation and organisation to always be provided by newspapers. The media usually has an agenda determined by its advertising and sponsorship. Therefore it is increasingly the role of affordable and accessible self-education programmes, like those at Sussex, to help us to rely on each other and not the media for emotional satisfaction.
“When we witness these spaces opening, I see opening the critical and fundamental understanding of University. How faith and hope drive activism and ultimately, that change is possible. Being at University, finding your passion and speaking about them provides hope, a hope which can ground you for many years. It is this faith gathered at Sussex that supports myself not to burn-out, keep grounded and to sustain my action on climate change. For it is not purely my faith, or a leadership generation of upcoming students that will inspire me, but being involved in a movement which draws out a whole range of backgrounds and diversities
“With so many inspiring and diverse passions at Sussex I learnt how important it is to try and break through stereotypes, listen to where people are coming from, make the most of your short time at Sussex, break out of our comfort zone and throw ourselves in at the deep end.”