In 2021, the University of Brighton closed its One World on-site nursery. At first it did not seem to make sense. It almost seemed petulantly perverse. This nursery, the University of Brighton nursery for staff and students’ children stood on an almost idyllic island of green space adjacent to the A27 Lewes Road and the Brighton to Lewes railway track. It occupied a listed tithe barn with separate rooms for activities, a kitchen and an outdoor play area. It was consistently rated outstanding by both external and internal inspections and surveys and generations of two to five year olds flourished and developed in an intensely caring environment. It was a very special world for them, discovering the social skills of working and playing with others, the joy of listening to stories and internalising narrative structures and characterisation, the sheer exuberance of playing together and the excitement of discovering the outside world whilst being accommodated in a beautiful and spacious converted barn.
Unlike most private sector nurseries who employ their workforce on insecure, often zero hours contracts, the UoB’s nursery had a highly qualified workforce all on (at least what appeared to be) secure contracts. More than that, it appeared closely integrated with the University’s alleged employment strategy. This kind of ancillary provision was of growing importance to attracting female staff who would otherwise have been part-time and to single parent students. Such positives, however, are invisible on the desiccated spread sheets of finance departments.
Still it appeared perverse to suddenly decide on closure. The stated reason was that it was not making a profit (an operating deficit of around £50 thousand), scarcely surprising given the pandemic virtually closed the University and with it the nursery. It was also declared that the closure was because the University was not ‘in the business’ of early years education. The business it wished to be in, diminishingly education of any form, would only be revealed later. To many staff and students, the institutional ignorance of the history and function of workplace nurseries was staggering if, unfortunately, not surprising. Workplace nurseries were not envisaged as profit-making. They arrived in response to the massive extension of female employment after 1941, as an essential prerequisite for working mothers. With further expansion coming in the private sector, with self-styled beneficial capitalist companies like Unilever and ICI as one of the range of ancillary provision, like sports clubs, provided by ‘modern’, caring employers. This was not a matter of profit and loss but of provision servicing employees.
It soon became apparent that closure was not an option to be considered and evaluated but a fait accompli to be enforced. No consideration was given to alternatives such as reducing, or even eliminating, the deficit. Closure was the only future. Still we were baffled as the beautiful buildings and grounds where the nursery once stood remained forlorn and empty.
We should not have been; the clue was in the ‘business’ relevance of the operation. This nursery was William Blake’s grain of sand through which to view the universe. A universe increasingly populated by predatory capitalists and deluded, ineffective vice chancellors in thrall to the god of profit. Few had appreciated just how much university senior managers are, at best, ersatz entrepreneurs, seduced by the high finance and glittering courtship of ruthless property developers, devoted only to the bottom line of an imagined’ real world’. They little saw, nor perhaps cared, that the carefully mannered seduction was simply, or complexly, to ensure planning permission by partnering not just a public body but one with charitable status.
The brilliantly designed plans and promotional videos would include public goods, like affordable housing on the University’s Circus Street site in the very heart, the very valuable heart, of Brighton. Unaware of the complexities of such developments, University officials were ill-prepared when rising project costs forced the paring back or elimination of such public goods, as one-sided contracts gave a monopoly of decisions to the developers’. From that relatively modest beginning, the University’s property empire mushroomed or, more precisely, its property debts, grew exponentially. Profit, after all, is private, debt is public. Like a football club or public utility, previously debt free organisations once privatised, accumulate astronomical debts with no increase in provision.
We should have realised as that property empire engulfed the University Moulsecoomb site, of which the nursery was a part. Now, massive new tower blocks, which could not even be dignified with brutalist status, line the main road, providing purpose built, and extremely profitable, student accommodation. Looking much like a second rate Stalinist east European capital of the late 1950s, they appear as concrete sentries guarding a sacred mausoleum – perhaps the tomb of higher education.
And now all is revealed. The nursery was killed to make way for Cathedral Group, the University’s preferred property partner, to provide yet more student rooms on the site. Whilst the barn will no longer house young children, the site on which it stood will host a “a public house, restaurant and events space, including guest bedrooms [and] parking”. That’s real business. Meanwhile the University’s other, less important, business continues to spiral downwards as its debts spiral upwards. As with the nursery, the answer is closure, with over a hundred academics to be made redundant in June, prompting all out strike action from UCU.
In an almost symbolic gesture, given the centrality of the Circus Street site to the invasion of the property magnates, the University also closed its Contemporary Arts Centre without any notice. This was, of course, to concentrate on its “core business”. The infatuation with presumed business models continues unabated and unchecked. The lecturers’ union, UCU, employed an independent auditor to analyse available accounts supplied by the University which did not include the property portfolio. The result was a £2 million deficit on turnover of around £200 million – somewhat less than institutional ineptitude allowed a senior manager to siphon off over several years. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, staff and students have just overwhelmingly cast a vote of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor. One doubts she will care. After all, students and staff, let alone nursery workers and their charges, do not inhabit the imagined ‘real world’ of profit and (in the University’s case) loss dictated by spurious business models.