The first Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) between University management and trade unions since the Hastings decision was announced took place yesterday. We thought that all members of University staff would appreciate a report.
In advance of the meeting, the trade union side (UCU and Unison) had requested all the relevant information and data in order to be able to scrutinise on behalf of staff the decision to close the Hastings Campus. Unfortunately, the management failed to make any of this information available prior to the meeting and in consequence the trade unions were forced to call for an adjournment to allow consideration of the information. The meeting will reconvene some time during the next two weeks. However, new facts emerged during yesterday’s meeting as a result of the trade unions’ questions which cast doubt on the accounts so far given about the process which led to the decision and the motives for it.
Perhaps the most significant revelations concerned the conduct of the Board of Governors’ meeting last week and the nature of the decision taken there. It emerged that:
- Governors were not provided with the report by consultants BDO for consideration in advance of the meeting;
- Contrary to the content of communications from the Vice-Chancellor Debra Humphris and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Chris Pole ever since, the decision was not unanimous and some governors spoke against the management’s proposal;
- The chair’s method of seeking the approval of the meeting for the proposal fell far short of generally accepted voting standards (there was neither a show of hands nor a secret ballot);
- The wording of the decision taken by the Board may not have been any less vague than the statements about it by Debra Humphris afterwards. The exact resolution was not available at the JNC, but we understand that it may not specify either the closure of the campus or any definite time scales.
This unsatisfactory way of conducting business 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.
When questioned about the review, Chris Pole insisted, again, contrary to the explanations given by the Vice-Chancellor in her meetings with staff and students last week, that the report and the decision were based primarily on academic considerations rather than financial ones. Yet it was conceded that at no stage had the University’s Academic Board debated the issue or played a role in the decision-making process. It is intended that the Academic Board meeting due to take place today receive only a verbal report on Hastings. This constitutes an astonishing disregard for the established governance structures of the University and a blatant sidelining of the body which is supposed to be responsible for
“ …considering the development and future direction of the university’s academic activities and advising the Board of Governors and Vice-Chancellor thereon, …”.
The trade unions queried the reasons for considering Sussex Coast College Hastings a suitable lead partner in the proposed developments. Like many further education colleges its financial position is less than healthy and its future far from secure. Moreover, SCCH offers one of the worst average rates of pay of any FE college and has one of the biggest gender pay gaps. Management admitted that the University’s proposals would have the effect of enhancing the college’s position in the eyes of regulatory bodies currently reviewing provision in East Sussex. Professor Pole, who sits on the SCCH’s board of governors, stated, ‘If we [UoB] are no longer in Hastings, Sussex Coast College is freer to offer a wider range of provision’, raising serious questions of a conflict of interest. In stark contrast to the ethos of widening participation and social engagement which has been characteristic of the University of Brighton, he added that the type of student prevalent in Hastings was 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.
Despite not denying that withdrawal from Hastings will inevitably result in staff redundancies, Debra Humphris and her management team have so far shown a marked reluctance to engage in good faith with the trade unions who represent the threatened staff. They chose not to take the opportunity of the last JNC in December to inform the unions of the review into the campus despite putting it out to tender in the very same week. They have still not provided us with the data relating to student numbers, drop-out rates and student satisfaction which ostensibly justify the decision. Closure of the Hastings campus has not featured in any strategic plan or been the subject of any consultation exercise, the process so far having been characterised by secrecy and a lack of openness which belie the public claims of the Vice-Chancellor.
Unison and the UCU intend to fight the closure of the Hastings campus, not only to save the jobs which depend on it, but also to defend the educational opportunities which this University gave a commitment to provide in the town. We believe both the process by which it was reached, and the decision itself, to be unsound and highly questionable. Bypassing the established governance structures of the University, it appears that the Vice-Chancellor asked for, and received, a blank cheque from the governors to renege on the institution’s previous commitments under cover of promises to develop ‘new models’ of provision with ‘a range of partners’. The proposed new ‘University Centre’ is little more than a euphemism for a few more UoB-validated courses franchised to the local FE college.
We hope you will join us in opposing this damaging and potentially disastrous change of direction for the University of Brighton.
Carole Chick, Unison branch secretary
Mark Abel, chair, UCU coordinating committee