Students and staff at the University of Sussex have united in angry protest against proposed cutbacks at the Brighton and Hove institution. The cutbacks will include a complete scrapping of the study of English history before 1700, a move leading historians have warned “puts in peril the public function of history,” and risks “entrenching the ignorance of the present.”
A one day strike by staff is planned for today – strike action which students insist they are “right behind”. For almost a week, a group of around 300 students have been staging a sit-in protest in a university lecture hall. It follows ugly scenes two weeks ago, when students stormed a university administration building, and clashed violently with riot police on campus.
The University of Sussex plans to make cutbacks of £3 million this academic year, and £5 million next year. The cuts are expected to lead to restructuring and course closures within university departments, as well as job losses, pension cuts and fee increases. The environmental sciences degree is expected to be discontinued, and the English, history, and life science departments reduced. Student advice service, crèche, security and catering staff are all expected to be amongst those losing their jobs.
“At the same time as proposing these cuts,” claims the Stop the Cuts blog, run by a coalition of staff and students at Sussex, “the university administration is planning to spend £112 million on new buildings and refurbishments on campus, as well as raising the salaries of the top 14 managers to a combined £2.1 million per year.”
Reductions in the history department will see teaching of periods of English history such as the Tudors, the Middle-Ages, Norman Britain, the Viking invasion and the Anglo-Saxons scrapped, along with the Civil Wars. The university will also end research into the history of continental Europe pre-1900, affecting the study of the Napoleonic wars and the Roman Empire.
A group of 17 historians from universities including Nottingham, Southampton, Trinity College Dublin, Michigan, Sydney University and the University of London Institute in Paris – all of whom trained at Sussex – reacted to these plans last month by sending an open letter to The Telegraph voicing their anger.
“To cut everything but the most modern puts in peril the public function of history, entrenching the arrogance of the present,” they wrote, before going on to voice particular discontent over the planned abandonment of the study of European history before 1900.
“For a university which has long prided itself on its European links to abandon the serious study of such pivotal areas of modern history as the French Revolution will mean depriving Sussex graduates of the mental furniture of educated Europeans,” said the letter. “The university risks damaging its reputation as a centre of knowledge for European culture and history more widely.”
On March 3 a record number of University and College Union (UCU) members voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action by staff. Turnout for the strike vote – 80.9% – is the highest figure the UCU has ever had in a ballot. They described the turnout as being “indicative of the strength of feeling among UCU members across the country over savage funding cuts and damaging job losses.”
University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU) president Tom Wills said in a statement: “We are right behind Sussex staff and the principled stand they are taking in defence of their jobs and our education. 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.”
On the morning of March 4, the day after the strike ballot was cast, a group of around 50 protesters entered the Sussex House building on the university campus – while another 100 demonstrated nearby – and refused to leave. Riot police and the dog squad were called as tensions mounted. YouTube footage of the event shows riot police dragging one man from a crowd of protesters and forcing him to the ground. Two men were arrested in the melee, one for assaulting a security guard and another for assaulting a police officer, while six students were later suspended from the university.
The Stop the Cuts campaign is calling for the cutbacks to be abolished, and wider consultation implemented on the issue of saving money at the cash-strapped university. They also demand that the six students suspended following the clashes of March 4 – the so-called “Sussex Six” – be reinstated.