The situation at the University of Brighton is worsening – but we’re fighting for justice

University of Brighton protest over redundancies
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In the last few weeks, staff and students have collectively organised to stop the University of Brighton making 140 academic and professional services staff members redundant. However, on 27 May, management sent another shockwave through the faculty and student body.

Now, the university has announced it will close the Brighton Centre for Contemporary Arts (BCCA) due to alleged financial pressures. This is another blow to our institution – but also sums up a wider problem in UK universities.

University of Brighton: the decimation of our institution

As I previously wrote for the Canary:

The University of Brighton announced the redundancies on 4 May. It said that it was asking staff to take voluntary redundancy first, before forcing people to leave. The university’s senior management team attempted to justify the decision. It argued that the freeze in regulated tuition fees has reduced the real-terms value of their primary source of income by around a third.

Senior management also said that the situation has been compounded by current inflation levels reaching near-record highs. They claimed this has pushed up the costs of maintaining all areas of the institution…

This round of redundancies is another blow to an academic institution that has faced years of brutal cuts. After the closure of the Hastings campus (and of the Eastbourne campus, due to be complete by 2024), along with years of wage stagnation, staff have reached breaking point.

And now, university management are also closing the BCCA. This indicates a broader trend in devaluing the arts and humanities. For example, in 2021 controversial government reforms saw money taken away from the creative arts. This was to fund subjects such as healthcare, medicine and STEM.

Read on...

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Moreover, the university’s executive board made no internal announcement about its closure of the BCCA. Students and staff found out via an article in the Art Newspaper. BCCA director Ben Roberts stated that the process felt “very top-down”. He also said:

There was no discussion about what we might do to reduce costs or try to be part of a solution.

Stop calling our supervisors ‘savings’

The sentiment that the ongoing consultation processes are a farce came to the fore this week for post-graduate researchers (PGRs) at Brighton. After fighting to get a meeting with someone from senior management, on 24 May we met virtually with professor Rusi Jaspal. I was in attendance at this meeting. The answers he gave, and the way he spoke to us, shocked me.

His tone was patronising, and he failed to answer a single question adequately. The moment which struck me the most in the meeting was when a peer asked Jaspal to apologise for the distress senior management had caused. PhD researchers like myself are at risk of losing entire supervisory teams. This has resulted in many researchers being unable to work and struggling mentally.

However, rather than take accountability and offer a sincere apology, Jaspal apologised for the economic situation and for caring about the university’s financial sustainability. PhD student Mandeep Sidhu, who also attended the meeting, told me:

I left the meeting feeling more outraged, frustrated and patronised than I had been before. Rusi kept on insisting the meeting was an “open dialogue”; it soon became clear that this was nothing more than a veneer for his condescending monologues, which he deployed to “respond” to students’ testimonies.

As PGRs, we felt we needed answers. Where will the expertise come from if our supervisors are forced to leave? Why have we heard nothing from vice chancellor (VC) Debra Humphris? Why are the cuts not impacting senior management? Overall, management’s tactics have been silence or stonewalling. Hence, a group of anonymous students decided to take action.

Student occupation of the vice chancellor’s office

On 25 May, they occupied the VC’s office on the 8th floor of the Cockcroft building. They said they will occupy the building indefinitely until management meet their only demand – that no redundancies take place. Students said in a press release:

The university’s complete lack of care and concern for the people whom they are most affecting by their financial mistakes to retain profit is unacceptable. Our staff are not disposable!

There are students who are finding themselves in a position where choices they have made for their futures have been either completely cut off or severely limited as certain pathways have been cancelled by the cuts. They find themselves trapped after financially committing themselves to a course that will not run due to the university’s management failures and are unable to escape.

The school of Humanities and Social Sciences will be disproportionately affected – 21 out of 54 humanities staff will be made redundant.

A growing trend

In response, the university threatened legal action against the students occupying the VC’s office. However, rather than communicating with the students directly, university management decided to serve the students with a solicitor’s letter. It stated that the university had reported the occupiers’ conduct to the police, and:

intends to pursue disciplinary action under the student disciplinary process.

Brighton is not alone in seeking to clamp down on students protesting. The University of Sheffield has been criticised for spending £40,000 on hiring a private investigator to look into the involvement of two student activists in an occupation. Similarly, the University of Manchester wishes to make an example of 11 students who protested over poor living conditions by disciplining them.

Such actions taken by universities are all the more worrying in the context of the Public Order Act. It will infringe on our right to protest in the UK. However, at Brighton, such draconian measures are not directed at just the occupiers – they are now impacting our daily lives.

Campus security crackdown

Since the occupation, management has heightened security on campus. The university claims there is no money to retain staff, but it appears there’s money in the budget to hire private security firms to police students. Now you need to show your student or staff ID card in order to access campus buildings.

On one occasion, after my colleague and I showed our ID to security, they questioned who I was, if I was a staff member, and where I was going. Security then followed me and my colleague to the elevators. They made us feel intimidated in the place where we work and study.

This is not a one-off occurrence. Two undergraduate students, who wish to remain anonymous, told me:

We went to Cockcroft’s women’s downstairs bathrooms at 7am this morning. We were in there a couple of minutes, then heard pounding at the door. It really made us jump. We came out, and it was two older men. One said, “Sorry girls” but he didn’t sound particularly sincere.

It feels like we are being sussed out to see if we’re the “enemy”. We cannot go to the loo, fill up our water bottles, or walk past the front desk without being asked, “Where are you going” “what are you doing” or “Unicard entry only”, even with my Unicard in hand.

There is only one demand: no redundancies

Although the response from management has been hostility and intimidation, the students at Brighton should be commended. Their dedication and commitment to protecting their education have been incredible to witness. They should be proud of themselves. Since last writing, an open mic fundraiser and a study-themed sit-in have taken place to support our lecturers.

Brighton’s staff and students are also participating in a no-confidence vote against the VC. On 10 June, a solidarity march and rally are planned, and we hope to see as many people as possible stand in solidarity with us.

The petition is still available to sign here. And if you want to keep up to date with our actions, follow us on Twitter at @pgrs_brighton and @UOBSolidarity.

Featured image via the author

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