The story of Hastings’ own university campus is a short one spanning just 14 years from its opening in a former telephone exchange in Havelock Road to its closure this summer.
There were great hopes for a homegrown university in the town and overwhelming sadness when it was announced in 2016 that the University of Brighton would not keep its Hastings Campus running beyond 2019.
Leader of Hastings Borough Council Peter Chowney, in his monthly council report, has taken a look back at what the university achieved and ponders what more it could have achieved if some of those initial dreams and ambitions had been realised.
Hastings and Bexhill – later Hastings and Rother – became a focus for regeneration and growth in 2001 writes Peter Chowney.
This investment was initially led by the then Regional Development Agency (SEEDA) and a Task Force was set up involving government, national agencies, the MPs, the three local authorities and others, drawing up a ten-year programme of regeneration.
Bringing a university to Hastings was part of the Task Force’s ambition back in the early days of the new millennium and was added as a sixth point to the ‘five-point plan’.
Public money was invested in creating a university building in a former telephone exchange on Havelock Road and the new university campus opened there in 2005.
Initially, this university project was sponsored by several universities: Brighton, Sussex, Kent, and Greenwich but as the project gathered momentum, Brighton University offered to take it forward on their own, with an ambitious programme of expansion put together by the then Vice-Chancellor, Julian Crampton.
This plan involved a brand-new building at Priory Square, purpose-built student accommodation at Station Plaza – which was never built – and an increase in student numbers to over 2,000.
The Priory Square building offered new top-class facilities including a state of the art microbiology lab, and was built using around £10m of Hastings regeneration money.
The then Council leader, Jeremy Birch, signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Julian Crampton to take this project forward, however, in 2015 Julian Crampton retired, and a new Vice-Chancellor was appointed with a very different agenda.
Within a couple of weeks of taking up her appointment, Debra Humphris announced the intended closure of the Hastings campus and the university’s intention to sell off the buildings, but not return the £10m Hastings regeneration money that had been used in the project – all proceeds from the sale were to be taken back to Brighton.
Despite massive protests from staff and students, Hastings Borough Council, local businesses, local people and many others, the university held firm, and the closure went ahead, with the campus finally shutting down this summer, holding its final graduation celebration in July, an event I attended and made a speech at.
At the July Council meeting, we invited all the university staff to a reception to thank them for their work in Hastings, and made a presentation to them at the council meeting. They made the point that Brighton University had done nothing to thank them at all.
During those 14 years when the university was running, several hundred young (and not so young) students received degrees, most of whom would never have thought such a thing possible, and would never have considered going to university anywhere else. Indeed, their graduates included three Hastings councillors.
The achievements of the staff in Hastings, particularly in the later years with a hostile university working towards closure, were remarkable – we should all be grateful to them.
Sadly, both Julian Crampton and Jeremy Birch are no longer with us, but it’s a tragedy, and a betrayal of their work, that it should have come to this.
Not all is lost though. East Sussex College in Hastings now has a thriving University Centre, with around 300 students studying for degree-level qualifications and we’ll keep looking for a university partner to re-establish a campus in Hastings.
One day, perhaps, we’ll be able to reinvent the project and honour the memory of Julian and Jeremy with a new university.