Universities Shouldn’t be Comfortable: Vice-Chancellors

The leader of South Africa’s University of the Free State and Sussex’s vice-chancellors on why freedom of speech matters.


Free speech on campus never seems to be out of the headlines. This autumn the government is due to publish new guidelines for universities and students, following universities minister Sam Gyimah’s claims that unpopular views are being blocked on campus.

Vice-chancellors insist that debate and contention is alive and well, but what is it like running a university at a time of severe turbulence? How does it feel when your students or your staff are manning the barricades? In the latest in our 2VCs discussion series, Anna Fazackerley talked to Professor Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of Sussex University, and Professor Francis Petersen, vice-chancellor of South Africa’s University of the Free State, about managing dissent on campus.

Petersen was acting vice-chancellors at the University of Cape Town where the Rhodes Must Fall student protest began in 2015. The heated protest initially called for an “oppressive” statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes to be removed from the university; it then sparked a major student movement across the country, calling for an end to racism on campus and for non-white culture to be better represented on the curriculum, which spread to Oxford University. Petersen was also responsible for engaging with student leaders when the Fees Must Fall protests broke out later the same year.

Since its inception in the 1960s, Sussex University has been known as one of Britain’s most radical universities. When Nelson Mandela and members of the African National Congress were awaiting sentencing in 1964, Sussex students marched from Brighton to London in protest. Last year the university became the epicentre of the heated national disputes about pensions, with many angry students coming out in support of their lecturers. As Universities UK’s lead negotiator, Tickell became a major target for animosity.


With fresh memories of outrage being very publicly directed at their universities – and at them as individuals – one might expect these vice-chancellors to resent activism. But they are both adamant that they want dissent on campus. “Universities should be places that aren’t necessarily comfortable,” Petersen says. “If things aren’t challenged here, where else will that happen?”

“I’d have been mad to take over Sussex if I didn’t agree,” Tickell responds. “Students are in the process of transforming into their adult selves and asking questions is part of that. Sometimes it becomes very uncomfortable, but I’d rather they did that than become passive recipients of knowledge.”

Did the violence of the Rhodes Must Fall Protests turn you against the students?

The students who took part in the Rhodes Must Fall protests were anything but passive. It all began with a student throwing human faeces at the University of Cape Town’s statue of Rhodes, and as the protest gathered pace students occupied university offices and burned art, vehicles and buildings. Petersen reflects that although he disagreed profoundly with their actions, he understood the students’ concerns about racial equality.

“These students believed the pace of change in Africa was too slow,” he explains. “They said: ‘As a black student I can study at the University of Cape Town and never be; taught by a black professor. I learn about philosophy but I am only exposed to philosophers from Europe. What about philosophers in Africa?’ They were; saying they might as well be; on a campus in Oxford.”

Petersen sees these protests as a collective roar of frustration. He had many discussions with a constantly changing array of student leaders (a tactic he thinks they used to wear management out), and it gave him a new insight into how students felt. “It was then that I decided that we didn’t have the urgency that students want.”

But for all his empathy he is determined not to have that sort of chaos on campus again, and at his new institution the senate is developing guidelines on how to protest peacefully on campus. “We want to promote activism and that should never stop, but the way you conduct yourselves matters.”

Didn’t protests also recently get out of hand at Sussex?

Britain may be a very different environment from South Africa, but I point out that there were reports of violent skirmishes between Sussex students during the recent pensions strikes, when protestors stormed a lecture theatre. Tickell is quick to dismiss these as overblown. “We need to keep this in perspective. They were very, very small incidents,” he says. “It was a few firecrackers and it was a bit noisy.”

He adds that despite Sussex’s reputation for being politically rambunctious it is a community. “We have a huge diversity of views, but overwhelmingly people are respectful to each other. Often people who are furious with each other are sitting together having a drink in the bar an hour later.”

Are you decolonising your curriculum?

Petersen says this is a “big priority” at FSU. The university has a curriculum change working group, and has clear timelines on when this needs to be implemented. But he is trying to steer away from the provocative phrase “decolonising the curriculum”.

Tickell agrees that language matters. “If you go to people and say ‘We are going to decolonise the curriculum’, that alienates as many people as it pleases. What we really need to do is make sure the curriculum and teaching we have today are vibrant and relevant for the students we have, and are equipping them for a very different sort of future.” But he adds that this makes more sense in some departments than others. “When people have gone to the school of physics and said ‘You need to decolonise the curriculum’, they have scratched their heads and said ‘What the hell does that mean?’”

What did the pensions strike teach you about leadership in a time of conflict?

Tickell says that Sussex was the scene of a near perfect storm during the pensions dispute. Staff were clashing over whether to strike, his leadership team were in conflict with both striking staff and the students who supported them, and other groups of students were angry because they didn’t want the strikes to disrupt their education. While Tickell was in London trying to hammer out a resolution as Universities UK’s lead negotiator, there was a national rally at his institution.

“There was a lot of anger in all sorts of directions,” he says. “Some of it was; very well focused and some of it was; just a sense of frustration. And the university became a fulcrum for a whole series of activists from across the country.”

Tickell says his team tried hard to get out and talk to students. “We tried to make the broader student body who weren’t involved feel listened to, and to make as many resources available as possible. It was a difficult time, but because everyone behaved with integrity the lasting damage was smaller than I had feared it would be.”

After the strike he tried to keep talking to students – and also to staff through open meetings. He found many were angry with him personally for not having managed to resolve the dispute. “It was really important that we weren’t hiding. Just little things like me continuing to have lunch in the main canteen so that people could come and talk to me made things calmer.”

How do you stop the issues snowballing?

Both vice-chancellors agree that, ultimately, protests are rarely about just one issue. Petersen stresses that the Fees Must Fall protests were about far more than fees. The UK pensions dispute, meanwhile, tapped into deeper unrest about issues such as job insecurity and the marketisation of higher education. “Young academics don’t have the same security that I did when I started,” Tickell says. “And students just don’t have the same expectations of life as in the past.” But he adds that the more issues are “thrown into the bucket”, the harder it is to solve the matter in hand. “We need to display our empathy but try to disentangle those issues.”

Petersen says it is critical to “know the heartbeat of your students and staff” so that you can head off protests in advance. “If you have made a commitment as management, how urgently are you delivering on that?” he says. “All those issues become the foundations for a protest.”

Did British academics put their students’ education at risk?

Petersen says he followed the pensions strike in the UK with some surprise. In South Africa, threatened industrial action is; never followed through because “academics decide their interests are; trumped by those of the student”.

Tickell counters that no one took the decision to strike lightly. “I think people saw this as a once in a generation dispute, and they saw this as something that was so important in terms of their futures that they were going to do something they would never have wanted to do,” he explains. “I spent a lot of time … talking to people and you could see many wrestling with themselves.”

How do you handle fees protests when you think your university needs the money?

Petersen explains that, for the past decade, state subsidies of South African universities haven’t kept pace with inflation, but expenditure has increased. Universities need money to fill the gap, he says. But in a country where many people still don’t have access to electricity or drinkable water there are many competing priorities.

Tickell says that until recently he was certain that the politics had gone out of fees in the UK. “Most students – begrudgingly I’m sure – accept the contract they’ve made,” he says. “But the [general] election changed that. Fees became weaponised.”

But Sussex students are more preoccupied with issues around the cost of living, and the high cost of bus fares in Brighton is a bigger issue right now than fees. “I have open office hours with students every term where they can come and talk to me, and there hasn’t been a single time when a UK or EU student has come and talked to me about fees,” he says.

How do you avoid taking attacks on your management decisions personally?

The answer, Petersen thinks, is to become more resilient. “The big protests also taught me not to respond immediately to the comments that are; directed at you. I’ve learned to sit back and absorb and listen and think. If you try to respond immediately you are going to be emotional and you are going to make it personal.”

Tickell adds: “However difficult it gets, the key thing for me is; to hold my team together, and to make sure that the people who are; very angry feel that they are being; listened to and being; heard, even if they don’t feel the decisions we are; taking are the right ones.”