Does Brighton and Hove really need its two ever-expanding universities?

Sussex University now has 13,000 students

Sussex University now has 13,000 students

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Ambitious expansion plans for Sussex University’s Falmer campus were rejected.

Ambitious expansion plans for Sussex University’s Falmer campus were rejected by Brighton and Hove City Council. Reasons given included the loss of trees, fears the development would create a “dense urban environment” in proximity to the South Downs National Park, and a feeling the plan failed to respect Sir Basil Spence’s original concept.

Sir Basil Spence?s original concept envisaged 800 students

Sir Basil Spence?s original concept envisaged 800 students

But the bigger issue, to my mind, is the obsession with continual university expansion. Sussex’s master plan, of which this development is a key component, envisages an increase in student numbers from the current 13,000 to 18,000 by 2018. Some 2,530 new student rooms would have been on campus, the rest in the city - 800 having already been scheduled for the London Road and Pelham Street developments. Meanwhile, Brighton University, with 21,000 students, plans to expand to 25,000.

Spence intended his 1960s campus for just 800 students. Back then, only a minority of young people aspired to a university education, despite generous grants. Nowadays, government policy wants half the population to enjoy higher education. More and more universities have accordingly been set up, or dignified with the name (Brighton was a polytechnic until 1992). We now have 150, turning out 300,000 graduates a year.

An increasing proportion of the student multitudes on these campuses are from overseas. When I was a student back in the 1960s, the make-up of my Oxford college was 99% British, with the odd American, Indian or Chinese. Now, a third of its students are from overseas. Similarly, Sussex recently announced that for the first time fewer than half its postgraduate students are British, the rest coming from 104 different countries, including 829 Chinese.

Foreign students, from being a rarity, have become an essential “cash cow”, without which our swollen universities allegedly would collapse. Yet many are poorly qualified, and their presence compromises academic integrity. A Sudanese friend was shocked while on an electrical engineering course by a Saudi fellow-student, who was unable to complete a form in English, and who “still did not know Ohm’s law in his third year”, yet who went home qualified. Two Chinese girls I knew could also barely speak English, yet apparently satisifed the examiners in their politics and economics written exams. Saif Gaddafi’s PhD from the LSE, or the antics of playboy Bo Guagua at Balliol College, tarnished those institutions’ reputations. Some 50,000 students, we have just

Sussex University wants another 2,530 student rooms on the Falmer campus

Sussex University wants another 2,530 student rooms on the Falmer campus

learned, are fraudulently here through corrupt language testing. Dozens of universities and colleges are under investigation. According to Professor Susan Bassnett, of Warwick University, “universities have colluded with this situation for years and successive governments have turned a blind eye because it has enabled them to continue to cut higher education funding”.

Dissenting from the expansionist culture, one leading academic, Sir Roderick Floud - provost of Gresham College, London, and former president of Universities UK - recently opined that Britain had “too many universities” and half of them ought to be closed or merged. “We don’t need two or more universities in each of our major cities, glowering at each other and competing to attract the attentions of businesses and local authorities.”

He cited Leeds, Sheffield and Oxford, and could surely have added Brighton to his list of academically over-endowed cities. London, he noted, now boasts “40 universities within the M25 and more arriving by the day”. He thought they all now attempt to do too many things at once: research, conferences, stock-market investment, property management, science parks, “and even running bus services”.

In fact, one sometimes has the impression that providing British students with a humane and useful education is no longer their top priority.