Correction: this article was originally credited to Steve Topple, when in fact it is Kathryn Zacharek’s work. We apologise for this error.
Throughout the summer, Canary has documented this ongoing crisis within universities and higher education. Now, as the new academic year gets underway, it appears that the recurring theme of chaos within British universities at the hands of incompetent senior management teams (SMT) will continue. The abhorrent treatment of staff and students at my home institution, Brighton University (UOB), is a prime example of this. In fact, students have started an occupation due to the situation.
Higher education: a bleak-looking new academic year
Across higher education, the University and College Union (UCU) has been fighting back against management imposing pay cuts, as well as the dire working conditions its members have to tolerate.
Since April 2023, actions have included a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB), strike action (with an indefinite strike currently in its 12th week at Brighton), occupations, and large-scale protests. The UCU has also announced that staff at 140 universities will strike from 25 to 29 September. This will disrupt freshers week for incoming students.
At Brighton, with the loss of over 100 academics due to redundancies and subsequent resignations, the new academic year is looking bleak. With less expertise, larger class sizes, and more staff expected to take extended sick leave due to chronic stress, the fight for our education continues. Now, students have started another occupation.
Occupation 2.0 at Brighton University: Pavilion Parade
In the early hours of the morning on Monday 18 September, a group of anonymous students (associated with the group UOB Solidarity) occupied the Pavilion Parade campus building in the city centre of Brighton. This was once home to the humanities courses. However, management is now selling it off – citing cuts as an excuse. So, students reclaimed it as an autonomous space for them and the local community.
Once again, the students should be commended on their bravery. Since the start of the occupation, they have been confronted with excessive force not only from university security, but also Sussex Police. They stated to the Canary that:
The students in the building are all currently homeless, and hope that this occupation will draw attention to the rising rates of homeless students in the city as it becomes increasingly gentrified and education becomes more privatised.
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The response from the university security and Sussex police has been appalling – yet unsurprising.
On Tuesday [19 September] – the planned ‘grand opening’ of the squatted community centre to the public – Brighton University security blocked the gates and prevented anyone from entering or leaving the building.
Students left in ‘precarious conditions’
Then, as the students noted, the university took things up a notch:
Later in the day, fencing was installed around the perimeter of the building, in an attempt to prevent people from jumping the main fence to gain entry. Meanwhile, security guards are stationed at the gate, blocking access. On Wednesday [20 September], we were visited by contractors who have been employed to replace the fencing with wooden boards. Upon arrival, they were shocked to find they had been hired to board up peoples’ home. As of yet, they have not come back.
Whilst those of us in the building continue to slip in and out past security in ever creative and precarious ways, the building is largely inaccessible to the public and so an inadequate community space. This is something we hope to change in the coming days.
The occupiers concluded by saying:
Whilst the university spends thousands on round-the-clock security and excessive fencing, it continues to make cuts across to board, and students live in increasingly precarious conditions.
After UOB Solidarity gave the Canary this statement, the situation escalated further.
Contractors have now installed wooden boards around the perimeter of the occupation. This has raised a lot of safety concerns for the occupiers. These boards went up very quickly, with no evidence of a formal risk assessment in case of a fire.
UOB solidarity have also said that there has also been another incident of security assaulting an occupier. Their head and neck were pressed against a fence by the security guard’s leg. It choked them and hurt their head. Security have stated that they are ‘following orders’, implying that this type of action is being sanctioned by security.
Even more cuts at Brighton University
Since May, the Canary has reported not only the loss of over 100 academics at Brighton University, but also management closing the Brighton Centre of Contemporary Art. This was to the dismay of both locals and the wider arts community. Now, the university has said it’s shutting seven out of the 16 Centres of Research and Knowledge Exchange (COREs).
These centres are vital for an exciting and dynamic research culture at Brighton. They help forge international links with other institutions, which brings about great opportunities for academics. Moreover, doing a PhD is a lonely endeavour, and the COREs provide post-graduate researchers (PGRs) with a much-needed community.
Bella Tomsett is a PGR who was a member of two of the cores which the SMT are now closing. She told the Canary:
As a PhD student in my first year, the CORE’s I joined have been instrumental in supporting to connect with other researchers in similar fields and making me feel that I am part of a research community. CORE events gave me opportunities to talk about my work, receive feedback, and expand my outlook on my research topic.
Now, both COREs I belong to are being shut down, and with them, the communities they enable.
I know university management says we still have Research Excellence Groups (REGs). But I have been only able to identify and join one REG relevant to me, which was somewhat active this year, and both its organisers are now leaving the university due to the redundancies, so that hardly inspires confidence.
Management told us at the start of this year that ensuring a positive research culture at the university was a priority, but it’s hard to see how this can be the case when they appear to be systematically stripping the university of all those things which a research community make.
Management’s position is now untenable
Since the start of the redundancies dispute, the SMT has consistently neglected PGRs. Problems include the loss of supervisors, suspended Annual Progression Reviews, visa uncertainty for international researchers, cancelled visas, and now the disbanding of our communities. The university that we initially joined is unrecognisable.
What makes this situation worse is that if PGRs need an extension for their PhD submission, the university will not waive the fees. After all the SMT has put PGRs through these last few months, it now expects us to foot the bill for the chaos that it caused.
While PGRs were appalled at this news, it was not necessarily a surprise.
This decision came from the same management team that have avoided public scrutiny by deleting their X (formerly known as Twitter) accounts. While they were deducting 100% of the wages from staff taking part in the MAB to starve them back to work, pro vice chancellor Rusi Jaspal posted pictures sipping cocktails during his holiday abroad.
At no point has the SMT been accountable for the turmoil that is ongoing at Brighton University. It is becoming increasingly clear that their position is untenable. So long as this SMT is running Brighton, the future of our university is not safe.
We need to start seeing resignations from those at the top. It is only right that it begins with the captain of this sinking ship, our vice chancellor Debra Humphris.
Featured image via UOB Solidarity
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