Sussex disciplinary hearings adjourned due to bias – but the fight is not over

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By Jelena Timotijevic

Today’s disciplinary hearings of the Sussex students (four happened today; the fifth is to occur later in the term) took place in the context that has become familiar to public sector workers not just in schools, colleges and universities, but also in the NHS, the post office, our public libraries and community centres: mass privatisation and outsourcing of public services.

In education in particular, this ideological push by the Government to privatise a range of services has resulted in job losses and worsening of conditions of service and contractual conditions of staff, including increased victimisation of trade union activists on campuses.

This time, at Sussex, the students were victimised for supporting the UCU, UNITE and UNISON members in their pay campaign and for defending their academic space from privatisation.

Students at the University of Sussex were in occupation from 26th November 2013 until the second national strike day by UCU, UNISON and UNITE members. They occupied the first floor of Bramber House, a space that has been privatised and is now used by Chartwells, the company now in charge of outsourced catering services. They chose this location because it is symbolic of increased and persistent marketization and privatisation of Higher Education sector. For one week, they reclaimed this space and made it public again.

On 3rd December 2013 the occupiers left Bramber House to join UCU, UNISON and UNITE members on their picket lines and to join them in their fight against an insulting 1% pay offer by the Universities and College Employers Association (UCEA). The students’ action has been an inspiration to all staff in the sector: they have given an example of how to resist the commercialisation of education, undemocratic nature of HE institutions both in respect of management and of academic governance and curriculum choice. They received support from academic staff and academic departments not just at Sussex, but also from many other Universities who are fighting to resist the draconian measures and attacks on our pay, terms and conditions, and equality.

What of today’s disciplinary hearings?

Today’s events on campus could only be explained as utter shambles in this latest wave of attempts across the HE sector to dissuade students from participating in political action, and because this trend in the HE sector is itself part of a process of inhibiting public protest and an infringement on the legal right to demonstrate opposition. The students have been victimised and made examples of.

What was important about the decisions today?

Firstly, the students’ legal representatives demanded that they should all be tried in public. In the words of Geoffrey Robertson QC, who was key in the proceedings, and spoke at today’s Solidarity demonstration: “the justice must be seen to be done. […] And if it’s not seen, it’s not justice.”

The demand was lost on the grounds that these proceedings were confidential.  Robertson QC added that this reason “was not an argument at all and that [he] was sure it will not be upheld.”

Secondly, the kangaroo court set up by the University’s management managed to appoint a senior member of the University staff as a chair of the hearing panel who on previous occasions publicly condemned students’ occupations and their right to protest on campus. On this matter, Robertson QC told the demonstration that the panel set up therefore was “unlawful” and the chair of the panel resigned, resulting in the collapse of the hearing.

It is the view of the students’ legal team that there should be no need to set up another disciplinary panel and conduct these hearings. The accusations against the students that sight breaches of health and safety and possible threats to university staff and students are utter nonsense.

University management’s incompetency aside, it is clear that what we have witnessed today and over the past period is simply an ideological attack on students’ right to protest.

The fight however is not over. The Sussex students face another wait until the University management consider their options; we certainly hope that a serious of failings on their side will make them think again before any form of further draconian action is taken. We certainly will not rest until the students get justice.

We will also campaign to get justice for the Birmingham students who are also facing threats of disciplinary action; we will fight against racial profiling and violent evictions of students by the police on our campuses.

Petition in support of Birmingham students facing disciplinary action: https://www.change.org/petitions/david-eastwood-to-drop-the-disciplinary-action-being-taken-against-6-students-for-their-involvement-in-peaceful-protest 

Occupy Sussex press release here: http://occupynewsnetwork.co.uk/case-collapse-against-suspended-students-fighting-neoliberalism-of-education/ 

TES article here: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/sussex-student-protesters-hearing-collapses/2010585.article

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