Graduation season at Brighton University, and in higher education overall, is usually a time for celebration. It’s the perfect way to round off the academic year: universities coming together to congratulate the graduating class on their hard work and successes.
Unfortunately for the graduating students in the class of 2023, this jovial mood is tainted. They started their degrees in the midst of a global pandemic and transitioning to online teaching. Then, intermittent strikes from the University and College Union (UCU) followed – and now they’re in the midst of a national marking and assessment boycott (MAB). So, the class of 2023 has been extremely unlucky.
However, at Brighton University, the sentiment among staff and students is one of outrage.
Brighton University redundancies: effectively sacking respected staff
As the Canary has been documenting, Brighton University management has been intent on forcing through redundancies. Around 80 of these have been voluntary. However, bosses are forcing out 25 professors.
On a personal note, discovering who has been selected by management for compulsory redundancy has been heartbreaking.
Those due to be sacked include Dr Tom Bunyard and Dr Cathy Bergin, with whom I have had the privilege of working with in lectures and seminars. Tom and Cathy’s expertise (philosophy and critical theory, and cultural histories of anti-racism and anti-colonialism, respectively) are integral to Brighton’s celebrated and longstanding humanities department. Both academics are well respected among their colleagues.
After years of hard work and dedication to their students, how senior management is treating them is simply abhorrent. It is also the height of hypocrisy that an institution which prides itself on its equality, diversity and inclusion policies wants to sack an anti-racism scholar. However, we are keeping the momentum going on our campaign. We are committed to defending the jobs of our colleagues and the quality of education for our students.
No accountability or support from management
For post-graduate researchers (PGRs), this has been an incredibly difficult time. Those who have lost their supervisors have been forced into the over-bureaucratic process of finding a replacement. The ‘support package’ that management promised PGRs will only apply to those who have lost supervisors.
PGRs have informed me about supervisors having to take extended sick leave due to chronic stress. However, under the support package guidelines the university will not agree to an extension. We still have no idea when the new academic year will start because of the indefinite strike. Even when it does begin, we are faced with the prospect of our supervisors being overworked with unsustainable workloads. We are stuck in limbo.
The university management team fails to acknowledge how the redundancy process has hindered all PhD researchers. Its lack of accountability has only made the stress and uncertainty of the situation worse. We have dealt with consistent stonewalling and silence for the last few months. PhD researcher Maia Brons told the Canary:
The way senior management team (SMT) have communicated through this all has been incredibly disappointing, and at times terrifying.
Disappointing in the sense that vice chancellor (VC) Debra Humphris has not addressed us a single time since all this started, and time for questions or concerns with other SMT has been limited to two online sessions, which left us feeling deflated and more concerned than ever.
Terrifying how all our concerns have been either ignored or met with “Out of Office” automatic replies.
It is clear as day that many forms of education, not to mention staff morale and educational quality, will be wrecked after the summer, and it is frankly heartbreaking that SMT continues to deny this. It is frightening to have to think how far management will go along this path of managed decline.
I personally feel that a lot of time and the quality of my PhD have already been robbed since all this started, and thus far, there has been no accountability from the university to make up for this.
Brighton and solidarity: two words that go well together
In the last couple of weeks, there has been no shortage of action from the Brighton UCU branch, and the campaigns UoB Solidarity and PGR’s Brighton. Branch secretary of Brighton UCU Dr Ryan Burns told the Canary:
In the last week, UCU pickets in Brighton have been visited by Caroline Lucas MP, Lloyd- Russell Moyle MP and Jo Grady, UCU general secretary. They all expressed their shock at the punitive actions of the University of Brighton management and support for our strike action. With UCU recently declaring Brighton’s redundancy situation “a dispute of national significance”, our fight has the backing of the whole union. The announcement of a global academic boycott of the University of Brighton will add further pressure to management.
The VC is clearly feeling the heat. She failed to attend most of this year’s graduation ceremonies and instead instructed some of her deputies to face the public. She will presumably be relieved that she stayed away: the scenes at graduations this week, including students spontaneously chanting ‘pay your workers‘ and ‘no cuts’, made it obvious to everyone that our students support our fight. Students blame the university management for the fact that hundreds of graduates received only fake ‘pending’ degree certificates due to work not being marked under the national MAB.
Dr Jenna Allsopp graduated with a PhD in Humanities. She protested during her graduation ceremony by holding up a sign that read ‘Solidarity with the Brighton 25’. Allsopp told the Canary:
I wanted to attend my graduation to enjoy my achievement with my friends, peers and colleagues, but I know the ceremony couldn’t go ahead as if nothing happened at Brighton University over the last months. I protested the horror show that was the redundancies process and the knock-on effect this has had on students’ education. I originally wanted to personally attack Debra Humphris on my banner but instead settled on a simple message of solidarity for the 25 tutors who are to lose their jobs and have bore the brunt of this brutal and distressing attack on education. A lecturer came up to me afterwards to say thank you. So, I’m glad I went through with it, though I was really nervous.
Scenes such as the ones described at graduation ceremonies are not unique to Brighton.
The University of Edinburgh students ripped the apology letters the university gave them instead of finalised degrees. Students at Sussex University handed out fake money with their vice chancellors face edited on. Manchester and Sheffield University are trying to appease students by dishing out £500 in compensation to those who are graduating without finding out their actual degree grades. But students have called this ‘laughable’ and ‘not worth it’.
It is evident that students are not buying the narrative that management teams are doing all they can to resolve the dispute and get their grades finalised. If bosses want to ensure students get their grades, they must pay their staff properly, improve working conditions, and call on the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) to negotiate with UCU. It is that simple.
Boycott Brighton University
The biggest development recently is general secretary of the UCU Jo Grady confirming its Higher Education Committee has decided to grey list Brighton University until further notice. This is not a decision that is taken lightly, as what makes Brighton University brilliant is the network that the staff have developed with national and international institutions. But, during such unprecedented times we are asking all UCU members (as well as members of other unions), national and international scholars to do the following things; or rather, do not:
- Apply for jobs advertised at Brighton University.
- Speak or take part in academic conferences or other conferences organised at Brighton outside of your contract.
- Accept new invitations to give lectures at Brighton.
- Take positions as visiting professors or researchers at Brighton.
- Accept invitations outside of your contract to produce research articles with Brighton or any new contracts for external examiners.
- Collaborate on any new contracts with projects at Brighton.
As staff are still facing punitive deductions of 100% from their pay slips for taking part in the MAB, we are still fundraising for staff and campaign materials. If you can afford it, you can donate to our solidarity fund here.
Featured image via Brighton UCU