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Local and national student issue round-up

We base our campaigning and representation work on evidence we gather here at Sussex and by following national developments affecting students here.

Our staff team collate a report every two weeks of relevant information including statistics from our support & advocacy team to show which issues are having an impact on our members.

This report is circulated to staff and officers and now we’re sharing it so you can follow things here at Sussex and nationally.


Content note for this edition: antisemitism, racism/racist bullying and harassment



1. Local developments and trends

1. Sussex University Freedom of Information (FoI) requests

2. Sussex SU President and University VC give evidence to parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights

3. Cases from our Support and Advocacy team


2. National developments and trends

1. New Universities minister Sam Gyimah

2. New report highlights ‘economic benefits’ of international students

3. UCU strike action passed

4. SUs commission Office for Students research to find out student perceptions of value for money

5. Chairman of Education Committee proposes students pay more for a ‘degree that won’t get you a job’

6. Black students 1.5 times more likely to drop out than white and Asian peers

7. NUS releases Sustainability in Education report

8. Levels of independent study potentially more important than contact hours for learning

9. NUS LGBT+ cuts ties with ‘Student Pride’

10. NUS launches LOVESUs campaign on Friday

11. Comment and opinion pieces


1.1. Sussex University Freedom of Information (FoI) requests

We track publicly submitted requests for information from the University as they may reveal information we want to respond to.

New FoI requests we are following which have not been responded to yet:

  1. What procedures do the University follow to evict students, squatters or subletting tenants?

  2. How many EU (not including UK) academic staff have joined and left the University over the past year?

1.2. Sussex SU President and University VC give evidence to parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights

On 10th January, Frida Gustafsson, your SU President, and Professor Adam Tickell, Vice Chancellor, attended the parliamentary select committee to give evidence to the ‘Freedom of speech in universities’ inquiry.

Tickell presented the facts on whether books have been removed from university libraries nationally, arguing that claims that materials have been removed en masse are essentially untrue. The only known instance was that books by David Irving (who is a Holocaust denier whose works have been proven in a court of law to be racist and antisemitic) had been moved to restricted shelves in some libraries (where you need to request access to see them). The Anarchist Cookbook, he claims, is the only other book not allowed in UK university libraries as it is illegal.

He stated:

We hear all sorts of claims about the chilling and inhibition of free speech in British universities but the evidence base for it, I would say, is anaemically small

Frida discussed in detail the recent controversy surrounding UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge, explaining that the media and the speaker himself had claimed that he had been ‘no platformed’, whereas, she argued, he had actually been invited to have a debate with an impartial chair. Both Frida and the President of the University of Edinburgh Students’ Union, Patrick Kilduff, highlighted that the NUS No Platform Policy that both unions adhere to only prevents ‘six racist, fascist or extremist groups’ from coming to speak. Frida also spoke about the damaging limits to free speech that are imposed on students and students’ unions as a result of the government’s Prevent duty and the bureaucracy imposed on SUs by the Charity Commission.

Wednesday this week (24th) sees the committee taking evidence from representatives of the Charity Commission for England and Wales and the Chair of the new Office for Students, Michael Barber.

Campus free speech fears 'whipped up', says university boss, BBC News

Universities hit back at Government claims they are restricting free speech, Independent

Freedom rings out in committee room 1, Research

Sussex University leaders met with the government at Parliament to discuss free speech, The Tab

We’re all special snowflakes now, WonkHE

1.3. Cases from our Support and Advocacy team

The Support and Advocacy team at the Students’ Union offer advice to students and advocate on their behalf where students wish to make a complaint against the University, as well as where the student has been accused of academic misconduct (such as cheating or plagiarism) or if the student is facing disciplinary action for a non-academic offence.

The following graph shows the case types over the past fortnight (from 8th January to 23rd January inclusive).


The majority of cases this fortnight were relating to misconduct (i.e. allegations of students cheating in an exam and collusion between two students on an assessment). Cases also included students making complaints against academic supervisors, and appealing grades on assessments.

2.1. New Universities minister Sam Gyimah

MP for East Surrey, Sam Gyimah, was announced in the cabinet reshuffle as the new Universities and Science Minister, taking over from Jo Johnson. Gyimah is a former investment banker, and was previously the Minister for Prisons and Probation. Find out more general information on Gyimah, including his previous voting on a number of matters.

Gyimah says he’s going on a ‘grand tour’ across universities to listen directly to students and prevent a ‘Corbyn monopoly’. He says he wants to discuss ‘tuition fees, safe-spaces, access to higher education and our potential post-Brexit’ with the students he’ll get to meet. He has also ‘suggested that the cost of student living would be a key theme (and is going to take up the niche but important issue of university printing costs) along with value for money and student health.’

Gyimah spoke this month at Queen Mary, University of London, claiming that he is against high salaries for vice chancellors for ‘mediocre performance’. Like Jo Johnson, he has spoken out against high salaries, but has not promised any radical efforts to curb these, claiming that he is ‘relaxed’ about VCs earning far more than he does.

He also spoke about a concern for ‘value for money’ in HE, echoing the strategic direction of the Office for Students, as well as discussing the issue of free speech and alleged ‘censorship’ on UK campuses, claiming that university should be an ‘assault of the senses’.

He said:

I think it would be a tragedy to have the kind of censorship that some US universities have become known for, but at the same time you don’t want free speech being an excuse for the kind of baiting that you get from the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos for example.

Gyimah was involved in his own ‘censorship row’ as Oxford Union President in the 1990s when he invited an ally of Saddam Hussein to speak and was refused by the Home Office.

It is suspected that the first major job for him will be on the ‘major review’ of HE funding and student finance.

Sam Gyimah’s first tour date, WonkHE

The universities minister must put students first, The Times

New universities minister Sam Gyimah has a battle on his hands, The Guardian

2.2. New report highlights ‘economic benefits’ of international students

A report from Higher Education Policy Institute found that the gross benefits – including tuition fees, other spending and economic knock-on effects – of international students amounts to £22.6 billion a year. This is on average £87,000 for each EU student and £102,000 for each non-EU student, while the public costs are, on average, £19,000 for each EU student and £7,000 for each non-EU student. This amounts to a net benefit of £68,000 for each EU student and £95,000 for each non-EU student.

The National Union of Students (NUS) International Students’ Officer, Yinbo Yu, also responded to the report.

International students boost the economy by £20.3bn—we must encourage more of them to study in Britain, Prospect

The costs and benefits of international students, WonkHE

2.3. UCU strike action passed

Sussex is one of 61 universities who have voted for 14 days of industrial (strike) action to take place in February in response to proposed changes to pensions by Universities UK (UUK). If the dispute between the University and College Union (UCU) is not resolved, academic will be refusing to cover classes or reschedule those lost to strike action, or take on any voluntary duties. Strikes will starts at two days and will escalate to five days.

See the full results of the Sussex University ballot.

This is due to proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which includes removing guaranteed pension benefits. The changes would result in what UCU describes as ‘by far the worst pension benefits in the education sector, far worse than those of both school teachers and academics in ‘new’ universities’. A sector with a combined income of £34bn a year, they claim, is estimated to reduce retirement benefits by between 20% and 40%. This, at its worst, is estimated to leave staff £200,000 worse off in their retirement.

1,000 professors have co-signed a letter published in the Times Higher Education, stating:
Young university staff work hard yet have endured years of pay restraint and casual contracts, while watching many at the top enjoy great rewards. Now that the USS - arguably the best aspect of the employment package - is at risk, we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with all our colleagues, and especially the next generation, to defend our profession.

In response, UUK were quoted in WonkHE as saying:

Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap. The option of no reform is a dangerous gamble.

Talks reached a standstill on Tuesday (23rd) after the Chair of the Joint Negotiation Committee which favoured UUK’s proposal to address deficits through changes to the scheme. Strikes are . therefore, likely to go ahead in February.  

2.4. SUs commission Office for Students research to find out student perceptions of value for money

A number of students’ unions, including Sussex, have commissioned a piece of research into what students think about ‘value for money’ in higher education. The findings will inform and shape the work led by the Office for Students (OfS) student panel.

Fill in the five-minute survey before 31st January.

A Guardian piece also features short statements by five students, including a Sussex student from the ‘Liberate the Debate’ society, about what the priorities of the OfS should be.

2.5. Chairman of Education Committee proposes students pay more for a ‘degree that won’t get you a job’

Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who is also the Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, expressed in an interview with the Times that students studying for degrees that provide the training to work in professions with staff shortages should pay reduced tuition fees. This also means that those doing a degree that ‘won’t get you a job’ should pay more. Halfon claims that the ‘incentivised’ degrees should be those that produce workers with skills for the healthcare, coding, construction, engineering and digital sectors.

He said:

If someone wants to do medieval history that’s fine. You still take out your loan and pay it. But all the incentives from government and so on should go to areas the country needs and will bring it most benefit.

The authour of the article suggests that these comments could feed into the ‘imminent’ government review of higher education funding.

2.6. Black students 1.5 times more likely to drop out than white and Asian peers

A study by the Social Market Foundation found that 10.3% of black students drop out of university early in England, compared with a 6.9% average. The report claims that, while work has been undertaken on increasing access to university for black students, less has been done to think about the ‘social, cultural and structural factors’ which mean they are more likely not to complete their degrees.

Students interviewed by the Guardian shared stories of ‘racially-tinted, miserable experiences’ and lacking community and mental health support as reasons for dropping out.

The report itself lists the following as as factors which contribute to black students dropping out early:

  • feeling as if there is an implicit bias or preference towards white students

  • a lack of cultural connection to the curriculum

  • difficulties making relationships with academic staff or students from different backgrounds

  • financial and mental health stressors

  • parental expectations

A student at Sussex, quoted in the Guardian article, said:

My male housemate used to say the ‘n-word’ in front of me, bragged about the fact he’d once racially abused a man in a club, and was so aggressive when I asked him to stop. Yet when I told my university counsellor, she said I couldn’t know for sure if my housemate was actually racist ... that I needed to live and let live.

I had gone to Sussex because of its progressive reputation. I was looking to find a place where I could feel safe and comfortable, but I really just did not find that. The environment was so white, the curriculum was so white ... I really didn’t feel free there.

The University responded saying that student support staff all receive ‘training around hate crime’, and that the student’s counsellor would have been BACP accredited, which means’ they have all met rigorous training standards and adhere to the very highest ethical standards’.

2.7. NUS releases Sustainability in Education report

This year’s report on sustainability by the National Union of Students (NUS) has found that only 1% of respondents to a national survey felt their institution was ‘doing all it could to progress environmental and social responsibility’.

Read the key findings and full report.

2.8. Levels of independent study potentially more important than contact hours for learning

New analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute suggests that there are a number of factors more important in determining how much students learn.

These included:

  • access to high-quality teaching

  • high levels of independent study (especially over 20 hours a week)

  • support for students with low wellbeing

  • avoiding high levels of paid work (over 17 hours a week)

  • location of study, with extra challenges for London-based students

  • studying at an institution with a Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework

This could be linked to the current focus around ‘value for money’, which is often focused around contact hours. This analysis suggests that mental health and wellbeing support, financial security limiting hours needed to devote to paid work and excellent teaching may be more relevant to ensuring students are getting a ‘good deal’ with regards to teaching and learning.

2.9. NUS LGBT+ cuts ties with ‘Student Pride’

The National Union of Students’ (NUS) LGBT+ campaign has publicly announced that it will no longer be working alongside Student Pride, with the biggest gay student group, accusing it of being run by ‘cis white gay men’ and not being inclusive enough. The NUS officers have also claimed that the group has given up its radical beginnings and is now more about the co-option of pride for profit than queer representation.

Student Pride announced the break in ties with ‘much sadness’, and stated that it is ‘hopefully short-term’. The group’s Chair also said that receiving funds from sponsors was ‘a vital accessibility decision’, that makes sure students can attend their annual conference for free and to fund other political campaigns and events.

2.10. NUS launches LOVESUs campaign on Friday

On Friday (26th), the NUS will be celebrating students’ unions by asking students to share their stories about the personal impact their students' union has had on them, using the #LoveSUs hashtag.

2.11. Comment and opinion pieces

Office for Students? It’s the Office Against Students and it is not going to last, The Guardian

Office for Students is in its infancy, The Guardian

Students’ unions in a changing world, HEPI

Piano and ballet give university applicants an edge – is that fair?, The Guardian

Open letter to the Prime Minister regarding the promised higher education funding review, AaronPorter’s Blog

Don’t be fooled – these free-speech obsessives approve of no-platforming, The Guardian


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