When the University of Sussex indefinitely suspended five students in 2013 for taking part in an occupation of its conference centre, the public backlash could not have been predicted. A 10,000-strong petition galvanised the university community and attracted the attention of world leading human right lawyers who offered to represent the ‘Sussex Five’ pro bono.
The suspensions were dropped but ‘cautions’ against the students remained. This week the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) ruled that the university had been wrong, forcing it to compensate the students and formally apologise. Adriano Mérola Marotta was one of those students.
Vice-chancellors like Sussex’s Michael Farthing rarely disclose their true intentions when they suspend and discipline students for protesting. In the case of the suspension of the Sussex Five, the senior management team hid behind fallacious claims that we posed a threat to the well-being of staff and students. When the community came to our defence and threatened strikes and occupations, the university quickly buckled under pressure. For the un-elected and un-accountable managers of the neoliberal university, the effect of fear is more important than consistency or notional principles of justice.
The intended effect of our suspensions was for fear and insecurity to undermine the resolve of future protestors – sending a message to striking staff and their supportive students. That message was clear: “If you speak up, we will lash out with everything we have.”
It was not the first time the vice-chancellor had followed this route. In 2010, following a large and determined movement in opposition to cuts and funding restructuring, the Sussex Six were victimised as the ‘leaders’ of the movement. Then, as now, the community came to their defence and they were eventually reinstated. The vice-chancellor has little aversion or regard for criminalising dissent.
In more recent years, the senior management team was again faced with a powerful and heterogeneous movement opposed to the top-down neoliberalisation of the university. Striking at the envisaged ‘heads’ of the movement, the university hoped to decapitate and conquer the burgeoning coalition. Like the Lernaean Hydra, every decapitated head was replaced by multiple new ones. The power of determined students and workers showed that repression does not weaken their resolve. In fact the movement’s response was stronger and more confident than ever before.
When the OIA announced that Sussex had singled us out without justification and had unreasonably suspended us, we knew we had emerged victorious. Our defence has been vindicated, and the university’s actions admonished. Our victory ought to be celebrated, because all victories of justice warrant celebration. It has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that we never posed a threat to students or staff, and that we in no way undermined the university’s health and safety policy. The OIA found the university to have unreasonably prolonged the disciplinary process through the apparent ‘lowering’ of the charges brought against us. The last point, in our opinion, was done in order to remove our right to legal representation.
Yet, if one reads the university’s statement on the ruling, there is no mention of our victory. Similarly, the OIA’s findings fail to acknowledge the issue of why we were singled out, why the university prolonged the process and why they went to such extravagant lengths to find us guilty. The OIA ignored this element because the response is political and independent adjudicators ‘don’t do politics’.
Moments of – and movements in – struggle are not defined by the actions of individuals or their ‘leaders’ but by the collective community itself. We were never the leaders of the anti-privatisation movement at Sussex. The only leaders of that movement were the masses of affected staff and the rest of the community which supported them. The people who worked endlessly to strengthen the resistance to the privatisation of 235 jobs and the people who rallied to our defence when we were victimised are the true leaders of the movement.
As the government continues the onslaught of privatisation in education and senior managers construct the university in a neoliberal image, our collective movements are needed more than ever. Rather than looking at ‘leaders’ or elected representatives for resistance and change, we need to look at ourselves and our colleagues for change. Although I may write articles calling for Michael Farthing’s resignation, this will never come from my actions alone.
Whilst students on Warwick campus battle the presence of heavy-handed police, the only response possible is that of solidarity and escalation. When students continue the much-needed fight for free, high-quality and public education on 31 January in cities across the country, the only response should be unity and confidence. When political parties make grandiose promises during the general election, the only response is to continue fighting and continue believing in a different world and challenging power. Cuts will come from whoever wins in May. The free education we are fighting for will not be won at the ballot box.
A truly democratic society requires an empowered and democratic citizenry. The changes we want to see will not come from idolised leaders but from the strength of ourselves and our colleagues. Now is the time to force the neoliberal vice-chancellors to resign and reclaim the possibility of free, accessible, high-quality and public education for all. They won’t give up without a fight, but we know better than to be scared of their reprisals.
¡Hasta la Victoria!