Occupational therapy?

Just when you thought that all students these days are only focused on being respectable and preparing for their careers, along come the masses and occupy a conference centre in Sussex University. Actually I’m exaggerating just a little, the masses consist of at most 60 students. Still, they’re doing a sit-in, no doubt unleashing sighs of nostalgia in my generation. Back in the old days, your student body was pathetic unless it had at least occupied the administration building and the library four or five times a year. And the student restaurant, of course.

It is hard to say when exactly the idea of student occupations was born, but some trace it to student protests in Columbia University, New York, in 1968 against the university’s alleged involvement in a defence think tank; these protests involved the occupation of several campus buildings, from which the students were eventually evicted by police action.

In the years that followed, student occupations became a common weapon in protests, to the point where they was almost a reflex action. Unhappy with President Nixon’s re-election? Occupy the administration building! Want to end the Vietnam war? Occupy the university library! These actions were often fun, though whether they achieved anything very much is another matter.

During the more conservative years that followed from the 1980s onwards, student occupations became very rare. But now, here’s one to remind us. So then, what are the Sussex students doing this for? Well, their occupation is in protest at the privatisation of campus services, including catering and estates management. There, I bet you didn’t know that there was still any university that hadn’t outsourced catering.

Anyway, maybe 60 students is not a mass movement, but they’re making their case. This being the age it is, this has been organised around a blog, which you can find here. And they’ve got backers – rather more backers than actual protestors, truth be told – and you can find the list of 165 supporters here, including academics and various politicians and celebs. And of course you don’t need me to tell you there’s a Facebook page.

Leaving aside the issues that are the subject of this protest, there’s something rather pleasingly retro about this action, a reminder that the activist impulses of the past are not completely dead in higher education. But is the action itself well-judged? Does it make sense to try to prevent outsourcing?

I can make no comment about the merits or otherwise of the plans of Sussex University for catering and other services. I do not know what the quality of the outsourced service will be, nor how this will affect those working in the university now. But the idea that universities should continue to maintain all their own non-core services themselves as part of the organisation is not realistic, and is not usually value for money. But any plan for change requires careful handling and good communication, so that the benefits are understood and accepted; indeed also to ensure that there really are benefits.

In the meantime, the student activism visible in Sussex is interesting, if perhaps ultimately misguided. Though if I were them, I’d give the celebrity endorsements a miss.

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6 Comments on “Occupational therapy?”

  1. V.H Says:

    You’d have to say given the weeks we’ve had keeping the cafe free of horse burgers would draw a few more souls than sixty.
    I wonder have they run test s, or anyone come to that.

    I’ve hit the 21stC telephony wise. I don’t know what took me. This is fun.

  2. Al Says:

    Such protest is a legitimate part of higher education!
    Its not like the rest of us have it all sorted.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    Maybe in tracing the history of the students’ occupations idea it might be worth remembering the latest case, the only one that students at Sussex University are familiar with, I am referring to the Occupy Movement http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy_movement which began in 2011 and saw many university campuses (and other public spaces) occupied for weeks. What is also interesting to note (and in some respects connects with the Occupy Movement ideology) is the fact that the students’ slogan is ‘Sussex Against Privatisation’, not Sussex against outsourcing, there is an important difference in that what is happening at Sussex University goes beyond the casus belli (the outsourcing of some campus services) but is reflective of that wider ideological confrontation between the public good vs the private interest, which is played out in core sectors of our society (education, politics, economics) following the financial crisis of 2008.
    Maybe the events at Sussex university could have been prevented with better communication, with a shared understanding of the university’s strategy when it comes to retaining its *core* services, let’s not forget that several universities have attempted to outsource services such as IT & the library only to come to their senses after a few months, so the idea of what constitutes a core service is not exactly clear cut for all.
    Students at Susses university are implementing their own version of Mr Willetts’ ideal of ‘being at the center of HE policy’ and chances are that these are the same students who know what is happening right now in Mali.

    PS. As for the Vietnam War and the students’ movement, I would not be as dismissive as the post seems to imply with regard to the impact of the campus protests on public opinion and political discourse at the time. They were more than just fun.

  4. V.H Says:

    You don’t think that flogging off the dining room might change the notion of collegiality since different people will be eating different food and different quality of food.
    In the past the notion of a college tucking into a bullock was a core aspect of their brotherhood since they were all eating the same thing.
    And anyway, how is it possible that a university cannot make money having a captive ‘customer’ in volumes of a large county town. Either their sourcing is drastically bad or they are paying their catering staff at levels of the well got civil servant.

  5. Eddie Says:

    The last time students’ staff occupation took place, it was to force the Director of a Polytechnic out. The Local Education Authority (LEA) then strongly advised the Director to go. The Directors of Polytechnics never liked strong LEAs from then on, leading to their representation to the then Education Minister Baker that they wanted to end the “binary divide” in HE ( the real reason was they did not want strong local government oversight/Scottish Secretariat oversight), and Post92s were born!!

  6. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    Survey after survey of our students who dine in our shiny outsourced eateries tell us that they feel ripped off by the high prices they pay. So there is a logic to the student protests.

    There’s also the old slippery slope argument; think about all of the TEFL centres that have been outsourced to private villains such as Study Group and INTO. And Ferdinand, was it not you who a few weeks ago were bemoaning the privatisation of law teaching?

    And then there’s the issue of who runs the campus in whose interests? What on earth is happening in UCLAN?

    For a similar protest at UCL google/youtube “Rex Knight”- this interview with student protestors is quite revealing…

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