David Hicks once wrote “What is education worth if it does not include discussion of moral and ethical dilemmas as one of its central concerns?” This question is particularly relevant to our very own campus. With a rich history of radical action, Sussex continues to act as a hub for student activism.
One of the most infamous, and earliest, cases of student activism on campus is that of Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki was the first Black South African student at Sussex, with his father, Govan, being a member of the African National Congress alongside Nelson Mandela. In 1964, the Rivonia Trial saw the imprisonment of numerous members of the ANC, including Mbeki’s father. Mbeki then led a march from Brighton to the House of Commons, resulting in a demonstration outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. In addition, the Prime Minister received a petition signed by 664 of Sussex’s staff and students calling for their release.
Mbeki’s work led to the development of the Sussex University South African Campaign, which helped raise money and support for the global movement against Apartheid. In recognition, Sussex founded the Mandela Scholarship in 1973. Following this, in 1978, the hall in Falmer House was renamed “Mandela Hall” after Mandela wrote to the scholarship fund in support.
Just a few years later, in 1968, a spokesman for the US embassy named Robert Beers arrived at Sussex to give a talk titled ‘Vietnam in Depth.’ Like many people who protested America’s decision to go to war in Vietnam, Beers faced student activists on campus. This resulted in Sean Linehan and Merfyn Jones throwing a bucket of paint over Beers as he was exiting Falmer House. Linehan ‘did the deed’ whilst Jones ensured the door was closed so Beers could not retreat inside. Jones notes:
“There were so many protests against it all here and all over the world,” says Merfyn. “We were angry and very serious about it. The war had extended to our campus. It was all part of a wider story.” (The Argus, Feb. 2018).
Moving into the seventies, the student-led University of Sussex Tenants’ Association was set up in 1971 and began striking in 1972. These strikes were protesting increasing rent and inadequate student accommodation. At the time, 77% of the campus population went on strike and withheld £35,000 over fifteen weeks. During this time, Unionews would often release articles linking the issues of student tenants to the wider UK housing crisis.
The strikes led to the university lowering the rent increase from 6.5% to 3.5%. In addition, a poor-quality new hall of residence, Park House 6, was prevented from being built.
In 1973, Sussex students were involved in a national strike due to the real-term value of their grants dropping almost 17% over the past decade. This triggered a rent strike which saw two-thirds of students paying their rent to the USTA strike account.
Due to these two consecutive rent strikes, the university revoked its plans for a 4.5% rent increase and promised not to raise the rent for another year.
The increasing rent and the event of 100 students becoming homeless also prompted protests. During this year, the SU and 500 students voted to occupy Sussex House.
“The VC, Asa Briggs, looking out of his spacious office must have been bemused by the comings and goings – people scurrying between Falmer House carrying mattresses and blankets into the Chamber through the windows.” (Union News, Oct. 1973)
The occupation lasted six days and saw all 100 homeless students given housing by the university management.
2012 saw Sussex students coming together to support a member of our community through the Don’t Deport Luqman campaign.
Luqman Onikosi was a master’s student at Sussex in 2011 when he first risked deportation. His application to remain in the UK was denied by the Home Office, despite being on medical grounds as his vital treatments were not available in Nigeria.
The Don’t Deport Luqman campaign began in 2012, which included an occupation of Bramber House. Due to this, Luqman’s case made headline news! Fortunately, after an 8-year legal battle, Luqman won! The activism of Sussex students not only helped Luqman but also brought to light the continuous unfair deportations executed by the Home Office.
Just a year later, 2013 included many key moments of activism for Sussex. To start, protests against the privatisation of staff jobs led to the occupation of Sussex House. The movement was termed Occupy Sussex, with the occupation lasting almost 2 months. Students broke down the glass door of the building and burned documents from inside on the street!
These protests prompted the installation of the Sussex Eye and increasing surveillance on campus. In response, a group of postgraduate students orchestrated a fake religious worshipping of the camera as a more eccentric form of protest.
The same year, as a part of the national strikes of staff, around 30 students occupied Bramber House. 5 students, later regarded as “the Sussex 5”, received a suspension. The event received widespread attention, with celebrities such as Cara Delevigne publicly supporting the students! These suspensions were eventually revoked and all 5 students received £2000 compensation.
In 2018, the demolition of old East Slope buildings made way for new flats, increasing prices from £88 a week to at least £155. This increase led to over 40 students occupying the East Slope building site.
Despite the new East Slope construction still going ahead, students are beginning to show concern regarding the planned building of West Slope, which will replace Park Village. This development will mean all on-campus accommodation will cost over £120 a week, making university inaccessible for many.
Further rent strikes occurred in 2020 due to students renting on-campus accommodation during the series of lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Sussex Renters’ Union supported students in the nationwide movement that protested against the exploitative treatment of renting students during the pandemic. Over 700 students withheld rent, which led to the university granting students the right to terminate their contracts early. The strike also secured a 10% rent reduction for all renting students.
Within recent years, student activism continues to thrive on our campus: from supporting striking lecturers to challenging harmful opinions within the community. Sussex students continue to focus on radical activism, allowing the campus to remain a diverse and energetic space.