Friday, 1 March 2013

Sussex students are revolting!

As I write this on friday 1st march, Sussex University students are entering their 3rd week of occupation of the University conference centre in Bramber House to protest against management's plans to privatise up to 235 jobs. What started as around 30 students virtually under siege (private security guards initally prevented access to the occupation before hundreds stormed the building) has now grown into a campus-wide action, with temporary occupations of 2 other lecture theatres on thurs feb 28th. It is certainly the longest occupation at Sussex that I have seen over the years that I've had an association with the University, and makes me feel a little embrassed about the first occupation I was involved in back in the early 90s. Our student union at the time decided to occupy our own student union (which does seem a bit pointless with hindsight!) but the union officers all left after 2 days because they feared everyone would be arrested, leaving the rest of us to sit there shivering for another 3 days before we decided to call it a day.
Press Coverage has been largely fairly positive, and the local paper, The Argus has a centre-spread documenting the broad support they have received (ranging from comedian Mark Steel, to the local MP Caroline Lucas, and the MIT professor, Noam Chomsky). However, this doesn't stop them retreating into the age old myth that protests can be 'hijacked by trouble makers', which assumes that if any trouble happens it's because the well-meaning (but gullible) majority were influenced by a sinister minority to do bad things in the absence of wider social contexts (e.g. how they were treated by other groups such as the police etc.) This assertion is almost never supported by evidence from such protests but it doesn't stop it being reported uncritically, as if it's an accepted truism that doesn't need challenging.  Nevertheless the support that the campaign is getting from staff and students alike has been widespread, and this is by no means an isolated protest by the 'usual suspects'. On a quick visit today, I could see that the campus was covered with yellow squares (the symbol of support for the campaign), and a tree opposite is now covered in yellow ribbons of support.

How this particular protest develops is clearly of interest to those involved and could have important implications for how Universities are run. However, I'm also interested  in how those involved in such campaigns can experience fundamental positive psychological change. In a previous post I looked at how involvement in collective action protests often resulted in increased feelings of efficacy and empowerment amongst participants that often went beyond the particular issue they were campaigning about. This sense of collective empowerment can also contribute to an enhanced sense of mental and even physical well-being, which is supported by recent evidence from social psychology (Jetten et al, 2011) about the growing understanding of the benefits we can draw from groups and collectives.

See the following links for recent coverage in the Guardian, and the campaign web-site, and some photos I took at yeterday's demo are below. They are open 8am-10pm and welcome visits, messages of support, and talks, workshops etc.

 Jetten, J., Haslam, C.& Haslam, S.A. (Eds.) (2011). The social cure: Identity, health and well-being. Psychology Press, Hove, UK

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