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.