Observer column: 25 March 2016
Lessons to Be Learnt?
The decision by the University of Brighton to close its Hastings campus Hastings has come as a devastating blow to the town. At Hastings Council, we knew nothing about their internal review until it began in January, and had little opportunity to contribute. News of the closure has been met with universal protest. The strength of feeling in support of the Hastings campus, and anger at the decision, has been overwhelming. The borough council, the county council, the MP, local businesses, university students and staff, the voluntary sector, indeed the whole town have been united in their protests.
The original University Centre Hastings was brought to the town with £12m of public funding and the cooperation of several universities, to help our town's regeneration. And it has worked. Courses have been offered to local people who would not otherwise have received a university education. The University of Brighton took over the University Centre entirely in 2009, and has continued to offer a wide range of degree courses, including specialist courses such as Broadcast Media.
The Hastings campus was having problems attracting students for a number of reasons. There was no proper hall of residence, and student facilities have not been fully developed. We're told it was difficult to offer such a wide range of courses at a small campus. However, none of this should have led to the closure - the range of courses could have been examined, and better facilities provided. There have been several attempts to create purpose-built student accommodation, but none of these has come to fruition.
Hastings has become a university town and it must remain a university town. Closing the university and not replacing it with something as good or better would badly damage our town's renaissance. So persuading University of Brighton to change its mind is the first preference. But if that fails, then we must create a University of Hastings.
Creating a new university isn't easy, but it can be done - there are examples of this elsewhere, particularly where there's a college in town that already provides higher education courses, as we have here. So the council would work closely with Sussex Coast College Hastings (SCCH) and other local partners to bring this about, looking at what courses would be appropriate to Hastings, and which would be most likely to attract students. We would involve other universities too, particularly those who were involved in the original university project. We'd need access courses at the college to help local people get onto those courses. And we'd need good quality student accommodation.
If the closure decision can't be reversed, we'll also be demanding that University of Brighton co-operates with this vision, and helps the council and SCCH make it happen. They've said they will, but details would be needed. For the project to work, they'd need to transfer some courses to SCCH to create an interim university centre there, help to plan and establish new degree courses, and transfer publically funded buildings to the project.
Hastings is a town that can achieve wonderful, and seemingly impossible, things when we all work together, and share a vision. The rebuilding of Hastings Pier is a good example of that. If we can't have the University of Brighton in Hastings, then we'll not give up. We'll realise the vision of a University of Hastings.