Page last updated at 11:34 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

University cuts spell campus turmoil

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

The day's agenda at the Sussex "teach-in"

As England's universities discover their funding allocations for next year, we visit one university that is planning big changes to cope with tighter budgets.

Outside the biggest lecture hall at Sussex University stands a sign listing the day's events. But these lectures do not feature on any course syllabus.

In this hall, it is the students who are giving the lectures as they occupy it in a peaceful protest against £5m worth of cuts planned by the university.

Sussex is just one of 99 universities in England facing real terms cuts to its main grant from the Higher Education Funding Council in a much tougher funding climate.

Sussex says the 0.6% cut it has received from Hefce means it will lose £270,000 from its overall budget next year.

But it is planning for cuts of between 10 and 15% in its public funding in the next few years and also has a deficit to deal with.

BBC News website is looking at higher education in a series of features:

As a result, Sussex vice-chancellor Professor Michael Farthing is also planning some major restructuring, including 107 job losses and some course closures.

But with students now paying more than £9,000 for an undergraduate course, at Sussex at least, they are very angry.

Members of the Stop the Cuts campaign have been sleeping in the red-brick building designed in the 1960s to look like a butterfly since Thursday last week.

The rear of the occupied lecture hall is packed with the protesting students' sleeping bags.

And the room is buzzing with the energy of young people fighting for something they feel is important - a quality education.

Media practice and theory student Steph has been sleeping in the hall for four or five nights. She says the atmosphere has been incredible.

"I am here because I feel like everything I loved about this university is being attacked - I don't want my tutors to lose their jobs."

Solomon Schonfield with his sleeping bag
Solomon has spent five nights sleeping in the lecture theatre

Third year anthropology student Solomon Schonfield adds: "Last night was the first night that I haven't slept in the hall since the occupation began last Thursday and my bed was amazing."

The university management is making no attempt to prevent the peaceful occupation of the hall from continuing and have reorganised the lectures that were scheduled to be given there.

But only a week earlier relations between some student protesters and university management reached a new low after a group of students, said to be masked, broke into the vice-chancellor's office building - Sussex House - for a demonstration.

Management say staff felt intimidated and called the police, who appeared in riot gear.

Two people were later arrested in relation to the incident.

Six students were also suspended and the university then secured a High Court injunction which it can use to stop any protests it feels go too far.

Professor Farthing said: "We have had a bit of turmoil on campus, but I fully understand the concerns of our students and that our own staff have.

We are part of the solution not part of the problem
Vice-chancellor Professor Michael Farthing

"They should protest, they have a right to protest, but protest has to be peaceful and within the law."

But he would like to see some of the "impassioned pleas" his team has heard on campus going beyond Sussex to Westminster where overall policy decisions are being made.

He acknowledges that the savings required by central government will have a "significant impact on the university's position" but insists his restructuring plans do not include anything "dire".

His strategy is to boost areas of the university that will bring in good research income and make cuts in those not so popular with applicants.

Vice-chancellors are only too aware of the realities facing all public services, he says.

'On the rails'

"We know the size of the debt that the UK now carries - it's very, very substantial and we know there's going to be no real increase in public spending for at least eight years."

"But," he insists, "we are part of the solution not part of the problem. I would strongly fight for the future protection of HE funding."

Students Simon Cunningham and Alice James
Students are angry about compulsory redundancies

He adds: "I am at the sharp end and know I need to produce a financial forecast which keeps us on the rails."

But many students and lecturers do not see it the way he calls it and some of the attacks, such as stealing his expenses and posting them on the internet, have been quite personal.

President of the Sussex student union Tom Wills says: "We are really concerned about the impact these cuts will have on students.

"If these cuts go through it will mean bigger class sizes, fewer course options and less support for students."

Meanwhile the lecturers' union, the University and College Union, is holding a one-day strike.

But union officials also argue the plans, which include doubling the number of foreign students - who pay higher fees than home undergraduates - are short-sighted.

Sleeping bags
Students' sleeping bags are piled up in the hall

Sussex UCU branch president Paul Cecil says: "The university is trying to restructure itself in a way that makes it attractive to international students because they are the fastest way to balance the books.

"But in doing that what they risk is that the quality of the student experience may be compromised."

Professor Farthing insists he is deeply concerned about what the changes may mean for the quality of education over the next few years.

"We have made a clear undertaking that we will not see the student experience suffer - students will say that is a difficult thing to achieve.

"We can't pull the rug out from under a course where students have two years to go and say there isn't going to be anyone to teach it," he says.

But that's exactly what it feels like for environmental sciences student Alice James whose course is being cut.

"I am in the second year and there's one year below me and they will be the last year. It feels like the carpet's been ripped from beneath me.

"People who have been teaching here for years are facing compulsory redundancy - it's going to have a terrible effect on morale."

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