Photo Credit: Hastings Solidarity
Photo Credit: Hastings Solidarity

Hundreds of people gathered in Hastings today to protest against the closure of the University of Brighton campus in Hastings, in the biggest student demonstration the town has ever seen.

Over 300 students and local people assembled in Priory Square this afternoon, before marching in a circuitous route around the town centre, stopping at several points along the way to engage with the public, who responded with overwhelming support.

As the column emerged from Priory Square the mood was militant, with a defiant chorus of ‘Hands off Hastings’ and ‘Whose campus? Our campus!’ ringing through the air. The students’ anger towards Vice Chancellor Debra Humphris was palpable, with placards calling for her resignation and thundering chants of ‘Debra out!’ dominating the scene.

The march eventually arrived back in Priory Square for a rally, with students and Student Union officers Re Poko, Molly Maher, and Mark Harvey giving rousing speeches addressing the importance of the Hastings campus, especially to single parents, disabled people, and the poor; many of whom will be shut off from the chance of university education if the closure goes ahead.

Today’s march was the first major action organised by the Hands Off Hastings campaign; a campaign of student-led resistance against the decision made by the University of Brighton Senior Management Team (SMT) to close the Hastings campus in the next 3 years, in a decision which many have called financially motivated.

Since the Hastings campus opened in 2003 it has received over £12 million in public regeneration funds from the South East England Development Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council; money which many feel will have been wasted if the campus is closed.

Making matters worse, the university’s SMT, led by Humphris, has refused to divulge details of a review they commissioned in order to assess the future viability of the campus. A meeting between the SMT and representatives from the University and College Union (UCU) and Unison had to be adjourned yesterday, as requests for copies of the report had been ignored. Even the university’s board of governors has been kept in the dark; only being presented with a brief overview of the review’s findings.

Students were not consulted at any point during the review process, leading to anger which was fuelled again at the meeting yesterday by Deputy Vice Chancellor Chris Pole, who said “the type of student prevalent in Hastings [is] likely to feel more comfortable with the kind of vocational educational experience offered by the college than the ‘step-up’ in level that the University’s courses represent.”

A joint UCU and Unison statement on the meeting suggests that the SMT’s conduct “raises questions as to whether the Board has adequately fulfilled its legally imposed fiduciary duty to protect the interests of the institution and those who work and study here”, and that the process by which the decision was made “fell far short of generally accepted voting standards”. They also point out that, contrary to statements made by Humphris and Pole, “the decision was not unanimous and some governors spoke against the management’s proposals.”

The campaign, launched just a few days ago, has immediately put the university managers on the back foot. A leaked email from the university’s Chief Operating Officer Sue McHugh to senior staff members, seen by the Hastings Independent, outlines the SMT’s fear of the students’ protests. In the leaked document McHugh warns staff to “operate a clean desk policy” and have a “grab bag” ready in order to leave at a moment’s notice in the event of an occupation.

Perhaps due to this fear, the students have already won significant concessions from Humphris and the SMT, including an offer to commit to a time frame of 3 years for the closure, where previously no details had been offered.

However, the students have overwhelmingly rejected this offer and will be escalating their resistance. The campaign’s next action will be a mass protest at Mouslecoomb campus in Brighton shortly after students return from Easter break.

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