The privatised machine

Worrying developments, people. I find myself on the side of The Man over the little people, albeit not through choice and not with any ideological fervour. A few weeks back, a horde of angry students, many shouting “Ra ra ra!”, started occupying Bramber House, a conference centre opposite where I work which usually hosts cosmically dull events about paperclips. They stormed the barricades (well, a revolving door) and announced they would not be leaving any time soon.

Initially, there was a policy of containment. No-one was being allowed in and once you left, you were gone. Private security firms, somewhat  ironically considering the nature of the event – ‘Sussex Against Privatisation’ – were drafted in to stand by the exits with badges on their arms and emit a general aura of menace, thus proving that private sector contractors give off the humanitarian warmth of a sharp ground frost. After a few days, presumably because the pong of dozens of unwashed students became unbearable, arrangements became much more relaxed and now students swan up and down, apparently taking on ‘shifts’ so they can never be chucked out.

The reasons for the occupation are sound. The University, with all the wisdom and foresight we expect from a leading Higher Education provider, have decided to outsource a swathe of jobs. Clearly, all the evidence, especially that coming from the beef burger industry, suggests that privatisation is always the answer to life’s manifold crises. These proposed changes happen to affect the lowest-paid, hardest-working manual workers on campus and daren’t touch the Vice-Chancellor or the important bods who sit in roomy offices counting post-it notes and holding meetings about meetings.

Apparently, outsourcing these people’s jobs will not result in redundancies, or so management have argued, not entirely convincingly. Quite how they can guarantee this when their actions are explicitly handing control to private enterprise who will then dictate terms and conditions, is never spelt out. The feeble arguments perpetuated by the authorities did not appease the occupiers, and neither did the University Vice-Chancellor’s long-awaited response to the situation. He waited ages before making any kind of public pronouncement over the matter, meaning he probably had more to say about the lack of toilet paper in the staff loos than the occupation for a long while. According to The Guardian “Michael Farthing responded to the protesters by asking them to leave the building in return for a meeting with the registrar, John Duffy”. ‘Cos obviously nothing gets the pulse racing of a lefty, lentil soup-slurping, never-seen-9am student like a meeting with a Registrar. Better crack open the Xanax for that high octane thrill ride.

Mr. Farthing can’t have been serious. The presumption that a protesting student will be satisfied with a meeting – with agendas, minutes and more AOB than you can shake a stick at – beggars belief. There’s no reason for a civilized discussion about the pros and cons of the University’s stance when something glamorous and visible and daring like an occupation is taking place. Instead of fighting over the last chocolate bourbon in the biscuit box and making small talk with people they will be arguing against in a few minutes, they could be swinging from the ceiling, playing party songs and camping in a conference centre commune with dozens of fellow long-haired denizens of the politically active world.

Celebrities like Mark Steel and Josie Long have made their support known, alongside world-famous, all-round excellent person Noam Chomsky. It’s uncertain whether Sussex alumni Frankie Boyle supports the students, although considering his description of Sussex’s brethren as a bunch of “boring cunts” in his autobiography, I suspect he may not speak in glowing terms. Furthermore, ITV and BBC have run news reports about the demonstration which has only served to increase the self-importance of those involved.

All of this fuels the lie that these students are making a difference. It’s quite sweet, really. Only the other day, one of the occupiers shouted from the rooftops that they were “making history” with all the exuberance and unalloyed naivety that you expect from someone who has never participated in Real World Shit. Such is the history-shaping profundity of what is occurring, surely the common question “Where were you when JFK died?” will be replaced with “Where were you when you heard that forty-two students and a boom box invaded a 200-seat auditorium, proceeding to drape flags out of the window and engage in terrace chants?”

Sorry to be so cynical. I sort of wish I was like them, all head-in-the-clouds, idealistic and certain of their convictions. To the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’ they shout “We all live in a privatised machine!” and wonder why people roll their eyes. I work with some of the people protesting and they may read this and be disgusted by my bourgeoisie outlook (I would never use the term ‘bourgeoisie’ but it’s often deployed when you’re left-wing and you’re arguing with a normal person so I’m isolating that line of attack), especially as a couple of them wanted me to sign a petition in blood and jettison my job to join in.

I said earlier I was on the side of The Man. Not quite. On the one hand, I doubt whether this action will make the slightest bit of difference in the end and that’s what stops me from doing anything more pro-active. On the other hand, I admire the spirit of resistance and am partial to a bit of aggro to keep us on our toes. It’s true that I am being inconvenienced by their ploy but not to the extent that I’ll dash into Bramber House with a fire extinguisher and clop every man, woman and child unconscious. I am too amused by the protest to care that it gives me an administrative headache. We have a number of events booked for the conference centre and the protesters don’t look like budging, so I have been busy booking other rooms. It’s a mild hassle to be honest and one that I have no problem putting up with when I see hapless political romantics swooning over the occupation and declaring it the greatest thing they have ever seen.

I despise some of the bullshit jargon that emanates from the University, which argues that there has been an extensive consultation process. The protesters argue that this has been thoroughly non-existent and could not have been less productive unless Michael Farthing shook a Magic 8-ball, asking “Shall I attempt to push through this significant alteration to life at Sussex with reasonable discussion and a mandate?” Clearly he received ‘fat chance’ in response.

Plowing ahead with the plans, the University announced it was involved in “competitive dialogue” with potential companies for outsourced contracts. Competitive dialogue? How does that work? “I see your line about ‘savings’ and I raise you ‘costs and efficiencies’”? On a YouTube video made by UniTV detailing the movement and its aims, some wag in the comments section bellows “SUSSEX WILL NOT BE HIJACKED BY A SIX FIGURE SALARIED SADO-MONETARIST CABAL”, surely a perfect example of competitive dialogue if ever there was one. I’m intrigued about what constitutes a sado-monetarist though. George Osborne in a BDSM nightclub?

Anyway, there it is, I’m caught in too many minds and I don’t feel fully committed to any particular emotion. Admiration, mild annoyance, respect and frustration all play a part in this mad game.

Constant vigilance against death

There are many things designed to make you feel like a proper adult. Take national institution Movember, in which automaton-like numbskulls grow a ‘tache ‘cos they think it makes them edgy and gives them a semblance of control over their lemming-esque lives of morbid boredom. It’s for people with a to-do list longer than a porn star’s dong, but with none of it making a difference to anyone’s lives. They are unable to control anything other than the hair on their upper lip, so they turn this power into something bigger and better than it really is. Were I to join them in my teens, I would’ve looked like an old biddy in an inattentive nursing home. Now I can grow facial hair which is dark and bristly, although I rarely exercise my freedom to partake in Movemeber because the resulting face furniture looks like it needs its own CRB check.

Attending a Health and Safety Risk Assessment Training course did a better job of making me feel like a mature being. I deal with kids all the time (not in a botched Newsnight investigation sort-of-way, I promise) as I visit schools to give talks and welcome groups to campus at the University of Sussex. With children as young as ten visiting us and ninety adolescents attending a five day residential summer school, your average Health and Safety officer would quiver with worry and ask how such activities happen without fatalities occurring on a daily basis. They must think that body bags are issued as standard to each University department.

To calculate the risk of something, we must use a severity index. This is what I think Jill, the blonde-haired damsel who headed the session, was trying to tell us with the aid of the driest PowerPoint in the known Universe. Then again, she could have performed a striptease and I wouldn’t have noticed, for she exhibited the enthusiasm of a recently culled badger. The severity index takes two things in to consideration once a hazard has been identified. 1) The potential for the hazard to cause harm. In a worse-case scenario, could it involve a paper cut or being messily impaled on a railing, with your intestines wrapped around a metal spike like grizzly cotton candy? 2) The likelihood of something occurring.

Both considerations are judged on a scale between 1 and 5 then multiplied. If the score is 15 or above, control measures need to be introduced because the hazard is too great. All of this seems like arbitrary, whimsy nonsense, not the cornerstone of an entire industry dedicated to scaring the shit out of everyone. I thought our briefing session would combat the perception that Health and Safety is pointless bollocks, offering straight-up, no-nonsense and sensible advice. I was sadly mistaken.

The department at Sussex is bloody huge. They have a massive building towards the back of campus, four pot plants in reception and enough staff to re-populate a medium-sized planet in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Such was the randomness of the advice, I wondered if the next slide on Jill’s presentation of depression would suggest that we should only intervene when Saturn is rising in the vicinity of Neptune, the eagle has landed or the grand old Duke of York runs backwards up an escalator.

We were then asked to consider some of the hazards that we might chance across in our day-to-day work. Take choking. Seriousness of the situation? DEATH, Jill said, sternly. Likelihood of it happening? We welcome around 400 children a week to Sussex and never once has there been a choking incident, excepting the occasion when a stunned teenager discovered a bowl of rubbery, days-old pasta with a disgusting blob of menstrual sauce on top would set him back £4. No, you can never be too sure, says Jill, writing 2 on the wall, to widespread disbelief. How can you reduce the risk of choking? “Right guys, we’ve got a real treat for you today. We are whisking you away for lunch at a chicken farm, where a tube will be slid down your throat and a nutritious serving of congealed mush will be mainlined to your stomach. Unfortunately Mustafa, I don’t think it’s halal. Sorry peeps… Jill’s orders”.

Another example. Getting run over. Seriousness? DEATH. Likelihood? Again, no one has yet been mowed down by a double decker but Jill said the bus drivers were fairly unforgiving and that we should mark it as a 3. So now we would be in neglect of our duties if we didn’t do something to curtail the risk of being run over. My tactic works fairly well, which is to shout “Don’t get run over!”. Works every time.

Campus tours used to take in the Student’s Union, which for some people forms an integral element of the student experience. I only ever came in to contact with them when they marched past me protesting about something inconsequential and embarrassingly left-wing. They would meet at Library Square and make the heroic trek along well-lit pavement stretching almost 400 metres to Bramber House, whence they would stand around looking glum and chanting about what they wanted and when they wanted it (usually “now” – they were impatient buggers).

Ambassadors used to show them inside the Union. Unfortunately, we had an ‘incident’ on one visit around five years ago. A school complained that pupils were returning armed with fistfuls of condoms which they had picked up at the LGBT centre. We had to incorporate this in subsequent Risk Assessments and the Union became out-of-bounds. Quite why this was an issue perplexes me. Of course, if students were visiting us in order to raise aspirations but ended up rutting in the Common Room for teenage kicks, this is far from an ideal outcome. On the other hand, if the kids were sexually active, why was it a bad thing for them to not get Chlamydia? The back seat of the coach journey home is unlikely to become a hotbed for frat-house shenanigans just because they’ve nabbed a rubber, unless school trips have changed drastically since I went on them.

What a lot of these things come down to is common sense (or a huge deficiency of it). If you swallow a whole leg of chicken and wind up in the Heinrich Manoeuvre with a stranger, then you’re a twat. If you run across the road just as an enormous truck turns a corner, you’re giving the Grim Reaper every opportunity to take you for his own. I shouldn’t have to write risk assessments to mitigate the effects of idiocy.

What’s worse is that the system doesn’t even work. We asked Jill if we had to store our risk assessments in a particular place or send it to an organisation so that it can be monitored. No, Jill said. We just need to have it saved somewhere so that if something dreadful happened, we could show the Health and Safety officer that we took every precaution.

“Couldn’t we just quickly re-write our risk assessments after an incident happens so that we don’t get in trouble?” my colleague chipped in.

On Jill’s face you could see the edifice crumbling. Her world was not making sense anymore. In an instant Jill composed herself again and said we couldn’t do that.

“But there’s nothing to stop someone” my colleague continued mercilessly, as Jill wondered whether everything would ever be the same again.

Streams of paperwork, hours spent thinking up inventive ways people could meet their maker, hastily adopted control measures and yet the system is still open to fraud and manipulation. That’s three hours of my life I’m never getting back.