Staff and students at Sussex University are waging a determined campaign to save the university’s academic integrity.
On 3 March, academic staff belonging to the University and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelmingly in favour of both strike action and action short of a strike in their fight to save jobs. The turnout – 80.9 per cent – is the highest figure ever in a UCU ballot. Over three-quarters of staff (76 per cent) who voted supported strike action and over four-fifths (82 per cent) agreed to action short of a strike. At a packed emergency general meeting, Sussex UCU members unanimously called for strike action on Thursday 18 March in response to the university’s refusal to agree to talks or remove the threat of compulsory redundancies. The action went ahead.
It will now be up to the university council, which meets as Workers goes to press, to decide whether or not to push ahead with the university’s “proposals for change”, destroying 115 jobs. Like every university, Sussex has staggered in recent years from restructuring to restructuring. Schools have been merged and merged again. Staff and students successfully fought off proposals to close down the internationally recognised chemistry department in 2006; in 2009 the linguistics degree was closed down.
Now redundancies are threatened, and the courses offered are to be reduced significantly in nearly all areas of the curriculum. In History, they intend to stop teaching any English history before 1700 and any European history before 1900. The only areas to avoid cuts are Business, Management and Media Studies, which fit with the university’s strategy. Like other universities, in the face of £573 million cuts imposed by the government, that strategy is to fill courses with fee-paying international students, reduce the curriculum, bring yet more private enterprises onto campus and erode student contact time with lecturers still further.
UCU Sussex representative Paul Cecil said, “Industrial action is an absolute last resort, but the university’s unwillingness to enter into meaningful negotiations, even through the conciliation service ACAS, has forced our hand. The bottom line is that serious job losses will impact massively on the quality of education and services we can offer here at Sussex.”
Tom Wills, University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU) president, expressed the students’ support: “We are right behind Sussex staff and the principled stand they are taking in defence of their jobs and our education. We understand that strike action by staff may be the key to winning this battle and we will do everything we can to support it. We will hold university management responsible for disruption to our education resulting from the strike – but moreover we will hold management responsible for the devastation that will be wrought on our education if they succeed in pushing through their cuts proposals.”
Strike ballots are also being held at King’s College London, University College London and the University of Kent. Last month, UCU members at the University of Leeds delivered a then-record turnout for strike action (see article, p5).