Interview with a member of the Sussex University SortUSOut Campaign

library occupation

Today, students at the University of Sussex are occupying a business centre on campus against privatisation and as linked to the wider SortUS[1]Out campaign.

We at libcom.org news spoke to one of the students taking part, and interviewed him about the students' last occupation of their library (pictured left) in March in protest against cuts.

What happened on the night of the occupation?
In the evening before the occupation, we (Sussex students, many part of the SortUSOut campaign) had organised for people to come and ‘sign in’ with someone so that we could get a rough idea of how many would be taking part in the action. After this, we would all wander into the library in small groups and then mob up and refuse to leave at 9:30pm, the current closing time, and hold it until 2am, the old closing time. If it looked like we’d get any less than 35 then the action would’ve been called off. Luckily on Wednesday March 8th, we saw around 100 students take part in the library occupation and with a lot of support from the library staff. In fact, the library staff were particularly supportive considering that they couldn’t leave until we had, so they had to stay at work for an extra four and a half hours! Pissing off the library staff was our biggest fear so it was great to have them on side.

Once we were there we had a lot of things to get going. We held artistic and political theory workshops, film showings and a lot of people just used the library as normal to finish their work. We also had mass meetings every hour to discuss how things were going and what we wanted to do. Generally, there was a very playful atmosphere in the library and some people even wanted to stay all night! However, at one o’clock we decided that we would all leave together at two. We still had the support of staff at this point and it seemed silly to piss it away on the whim of pulling an all-nighter. We agreed that this was not the last occupation and that this was only one part of a bigger campaign.

What were the issues behind the occupation?

Well, obviously the reason we occupied the library (as opposed to somewhere else) was because of the many issues connected directly to the library. There is a lack of reading materials (even core reading list books) which forces a lot of us to rely on e-journals and pushing the financial burden onto us through printing. Cuts have also meant a lot of library staff have also been forced to leave meaning that a lot of books are left unshelved even if they are in the library! These staff cuts have been bad for everyone, students and workers. For the staff that lost their jobs, well, they’re out of work. For those still there, they’ve found themselves with an extra workload and, in some cases, doing jobs they’re not trained to do like compile reading lists. And the students, we just get an all round worse service. Considering our university has recently declared itself to no longer primarily be a teaching facility but a research facility, you’d think we’d at least have a good library!

However, the occupation wasn’t just about the library. There are many issues here at Sussex. The lack of contact hours on a lot of arts and humanities courses, the lack of food provision on campus, the cuts to interdisciplinary courses and courses advertised in the 2005/06 prospectus, the opposition to rent rises and the privatisation of university housing and, of course, the introduction of top-up fees. We also stood in solidarity with all staff at our university fighting against the Vice-Chancellor and the university council. [University staff themselves struck the previous day]

When and how did the SortUSOut campaign come about? What have you been up to?
The SortUSOut campaign came about at the end of the last students’ union AGM in November 2005 when a vote of no confidence turned into a ballot for strike action. However, it didn’t really get going until after everyone got back from Christmas break. The vote of no confidence was supported and when someone suggested strike action, it was backed almost unanimously by the 500-600 people attending the conference. A group of about 30 people then met up to discuss where to take the campaign. It got a bit depressing after this, with the union largely sitting on its arse and putting together a ‘Student Submission’[2] to the university. As good as it was, it clearly wasn’t enough and the union was obviously sitting on the responsibility of organising a strike. I had a falling out with a lot of the union full-timers (‘sabatticals’ or ‘sabs’) at this time and got a little disheartened.

However, there were still a lot of independents involved as were the Socialist Students (essentially a Socialist Party front but full of committed organisers, both SP and non-SP) and a couple of Autonomous Students (umbrella group for anarchists at Sussex, with their own discussion board on libcom.org forums). At the beginning of the winter term we produced the first issue of the SortUSOut newsletter, which has seen around 3,500 delivered door-to-door and left in prominent places around campus. 1,311 signatures were also collected for a petition supporting the vote of no confidence in the university council. All this was done to try and bring the campaign back to life after nothing happening for so long. There was also a demonstration of around 60 students where we collected another 300-odd signatures. The demonstration, though small, was a good first step to reviving interest in the campaign. After the demo, there was a meeting of all those who had attended and it was here that it was decided to organise an occupation.

Can you tell us more about the SortUSOut campaign? How many people are involved? How is it organised? What problems have you experienced?
Its difficult to say how many people there are in the SortUSOut campaign. There are probably around 20 regulars, about half of whom are union full-timers, three or four Socialist Students, one or two Autonomous Students and about half a dozen independents. Decisions are made at weekly open meetings and there isn’t any kind of formalised hierarchy. However, there are a few problems (as there always are). The union has been very slow moving in a lot of cases and even opposed some moves by the students. One of the union sabs tried to stop the SortUSOut campaign talking to the press as it was scared of tarring the university’s reputation! Surely that’s one for the university to worry about! And why shouldn’t potential students know about what’s going on at Sussex? When this was written about in the Socialist Party’s newspaper it led to another full-timer saying that the article was making the campaign look weak and divided.

There is also a slight problem of reaching out to more students. Generally, even though the actions pull out quite a few more, the organising meetings are all the ‘regulars’ but not many others. Perhaps this will change as the campaign gains momentum but for the moment its still a problem.

Where forward for the SortUSOut campaign?
Well, at the end of last term, after the occupation, things got really interesting. Until now, the campaign had largely been Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities students as we were the students most hit. However, at the end of last term, the university made the shock decision to close down the chemistry department which almost instantly mobilised the entire science departments, both staff and students. I spoke to one chemistry student, while she was doing a door-to-door petition round, and she told me that chemistry students didn’t get involved in SortUSOut at first because they “didn’t want to get involved in politics” but that the university had basically forced their hand. As if the Vice-Chancellor didn’t have enough enemies, he decides to piss off possibly the only people who weren’t already gunning for him! Anyway, the speedy reaction of the students and staff meant that the university senate have now decided to ‘review’ their plans to close down the department so I suppose there was a partial victory there to build from. I think the attempted closing of the chemistry department showed a lot of people that it doesn’t matter how respected your department is [the chemistry department at Sussex has produced two Nobel Laureates - libcom], you are still at risk of being closed down to save money while the Vice Chancellor continues giving himself pay rises.

So basically, yeah, the campaign looks like it’s here for more than a bit and is definitely spreading amongst other students. There will be more demos, more occupations and hopefully we’ll get the strike action which the union failed to provide us with.

Have there been any links with other students’, workers' or local community groups? What are the links with staff like?
We got a lot of support from students across Britain and the world. Within hours of the occupation, we’d had a solidarity text message from some students in Stoke and in the next few days we’d had messages of support from Lancaster, Dublin and Colombia. There was also some woman at the occupation from the NUS but I’m unsure exactly what the point of her being there was as she didn’t really do anything - positive or negative. We’ve had fairly decent links with the AUT with some of its organisers turning up to a couple of meetings. To be honest though, the links made with other non-students’ groups have been minimal and this does need to be remedied. There was once an associate tutors’ group which was a rank and file network fighting the university’s treatment of associate tutors (of which there are currently 1,000 at Sussex). I think its largely wound down now but there is a possibility of linking up with those who were around back when it was still going and seeing if there is scope for helping each other out or even a resurrection!

Do you see your struggle as connected to the AUT strike the day before your occupation?
Oh definately. I mean, we’re all being messed around by the same people and you can’t affect university staff without also affecting the students. The situation with associate tutors is a perfect example. ATs get messed about really badly at Sussex, as they’re mostly graduate students doing research degrees and don’t have the time to provide students with much help outside seminars. They’re also only paid for seminars, their maximum of one office hour a week and their assessed marking. Because of this it’s difficult to get them to put their research on hold and ask them to help you with your essay coz they’re not getting paid. It’s a similar situation with lecturers and library and admin staff. When they’re making cuts in the library or in departments, they’re not just putting the staff’s jobs at risk but they’re also putting our education at risk. In my opinion, the struggles of the staff and the students at any university are always linked, after all, we both have the same interest: making the university a better learning environment. In that way, I see the students’ campaign as opening up a ‘second front’ in the fight against the university council. By struggling for our own demands we are putting even more pressure on the university council and as such are extending the best form of solidarity to the staff that we can.

How do you see your struggle connected with the recent university occupations in France?
I suppose they are quite linked but not nearly as strong as with the university staff. Its always tempting to shout “Our struggle is global!” and I guess the similarity in tactics and the timing of the occupations make it even more so. But there are very fundamental differences. Over here we’re fighting for better provision of education and welfare at our university while in France it isn’t the universities they were fighting as such (though they did get into conflict with them), they were fighting a new labour law which affected everyone - students and non-students. I’d also say the intensity of the struggle was very different. I mean, our occupation wasn’t attacked by riot police or fascists armed with iron bars. They were in France. So there are massive differences. However, there are some striking similarities. The fact that we see the occupation as a mass tactic again, not just a few anarchists locking themselves in an office, is very important. Occupations just don’t work nearly as well when done by some tiny vanguard of direct action-ists, which is why I was so pleased to see we got well over the 35-person minimum. Also, the fact that direct democracy through mass assemblies of those involved in the occupations sprung up independently is also very important. I suppose you could say that these parallel struggles show the natural inclination of all people in struggle: equality, democracy and co-operation. So yeah, there are massive differences in the struggles in terms of what they’re about but the nature in which they’re carried out is very similar. And of course, those who took part in the occupation at Sussex University, if not the entire student body involved in the SortUSOut campaign, stood in 100% solidarity with the occupation movement in France.

Footnotes
[1] US = University of Sussex
[2] To read the submission, go to http://www.ussu.net/sortUSout/documents/student_submission.pdf

Posted By

libcom
May 11 2006 11:01

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