The seaside town of Hastings is best known for the Norman invasion of 1066 that led to the famous battle. But over the past 10 years, Hastings has seen a rather different invasion: from higher education.
At the turn of the millennium, Hastings was down on its luck. It had high rates of unemployment, low levels of educational attainment, low wages and several of the town’s schools were in special measures.
Peter Jones, then leader of East Sussex County Council, had the idea of building a university that would regenerate the town by providing local people with access to higher education, encouraging new businesses to invest in the area and helping existing ones to grow.
Thirteen years later, the higher education centre that developed out of the project is a fully fledged campus of the University of Brighton with 850 students, just over 100 staff and 40 courses.
Mr Jones, now the chairman of the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, said that the project has had a “profound impact on the well-being of the whole community”.
“Bringing higher education to Hastings has addressed one of the basic problems that Hastings had: low aspiration,” he said. “[The] university’s coming to town has had the profound effect of raising expectations, raising skills and opening up an opportunity that did not exist before.”
The story of higher education in Hastings started in 2001 when East Sussex County Council, Hastings Borough Council, Rother District Council and regeneration partners secured funding from the now-defunct South East England Development Agency to undertake an “education-led regeneration” of the town. The councils approached the University of Brighton to see if it wanted to get involved.
Brighton took on the challenge and worked with The Open University, plus Sussex, Greenwich and Canterbury Christ Church universities to develop the project. In 2003, the University Centre Hastings opened its doors. It had 40 students, five staff and offered two courses in the first year.
Julian Crampton, vice-chancellor of Brighton, said: “The essence of it was that this would be part of an integrated plan working with businesses and councils to start the upward spiral for regeneration.”
Gradually, the other partner universities became less involved with the project. In 2009, Brighton was providing 95 per cent of the courses and named Hastings its fifth campus, to sit alongside its three Brighton campuses and one in Eastbourne.
As the University of Brighton in Hastings campus developed, so did the town. New business premises helped to create new jobs. Professor Crampton said a “major success” for this part of the project was the arrival of Saga in 2011. The over-fifties insurance and holiday company bought a six-storey office block in the town’s new business district and created 800 jobs.
John Shaw, chief executive of not-for-profit development company Sea Change Sussex, said that regeneration has not happened overnight. “We are now having a core of graduates starting to come through the pipeline,” he added.
Over the past 10 years, the number of businesses in Hastings has grown, as have average wages for employees. According to East Sussex in Figures, the county council’s web-based database, the mean average wage rose 17 per cent between 2008 and 2012, compared with a rise of less than 6 per cent across the South East. The number of businesses in the town grew by 130 between 2004 and 2009.
Bravery pays off
Professor Crampton admitted that the project was a “brave approach” to regeneration. “A lot of others may think that one of the first things you have to do is create business space or a science park,” he said. “This was taking a rather radical view where education was at the heart of the whole initiative. That was quite innovative.”
The university did not stop at higher education. In 2011, two new academy secondary schools opened with the university as lead sponsor. Earlier this year, three local primary schools joined the Academy Trust and three more are expected to join by the end of the year.
Professor Crampton added that the university has always had good links with the local further education colleges. “Here is a town of about 100,000 where the university has really brought together education from primary school right through to secondary, sixth form and vocational or higher education.” This provides a “road map” for children to progress right the way through the education system, he argued.
Joanna MacDonald, a principal lecturer and course leader at Hastings, has been teaching at the campus since 2006 and has seen the changes that the university has helped it achieve. “I’ve seen Hastings become less scruffy,” she said. “The university has made a big difference. We are a big part of the town centre; people know who we are and what we are doing here.”
She added: “We have grown enormously. We are now getting staff who are based here on a regular basis instead of being Eastbourne- and Brighton-based and coming to Hastings one day a week.”
If Professor Crampton has his way, this growth will not slow down any time soon. “Our plan is to grow to 1,500-2,000 [students] gradually,” he said. He hopes to reach 1,500 in the next three years.
“The appetite is there – we started with one academic building, and now we have three. We are just about to begin building student residences in the town to really flesh this out as a properly viable campus.”
The University of Brighton has invested £30 million in the project over the past 10 years. Professor Crampton added that “significant” funding came from the now-defunct South East England Development Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Growth has not been easy. “We are creating an environment that is a high-quality education environment for quite a small number of students,” Professor Crampton said. This brings challenges in creating the feel of a university, as well as in getting the courses to align with the town’s aspirations for growth and business, he added.
The past decade has also seen political changes that have affected the stability of finance, Professor Crampton said, with the closure of regional development agencies from 2010 and the rise of the Local Enterprise Partnerships.
Brighton is not the first university to develop a presence in an underserved area. In 1994, the University of Greenwich began offering courses at a site in Chatham Maritime near Gillingham in Kent. Several universities in the region now run courses on the campus.
Mr Jones said that universities should get more involved in regeneration projects because they can “really raise the skills [level] within the community”. The broad benefits of this are a more qualified and confident population that can go on to have good careers, he argued.