Is London providing the higher education campuses that we need to compete globally?

Thursday 26 June 2014

The ability of London’s Higher Education establishments to compete on the world stage is being hampered by the capital’s housing crisis. But they can continue to draw the best students from around the globe if HE bodies concentrate on placemaking, creating a buzz and marketing the total picture of studying in such a diverse world city.

Those were some of the key points to arise from an NLA think tank co-hosted by Nicholas Hare Architects, whose partner Carol Lelliott began with the notion that social media is now opening up the whole education experience, allowing students a more accurate picture of where they might study. The emphasis is now much more on environments, said Lelliott, not just about the ‘shiny new laboratories’ or the excellence of institutions, but about the ability students might have to interact with their peers both in the learning environment and into their prospective living accommodation. There was no coincidence, Lelliott went on, that Julian Robinson, director of estates at the LSE, had invested so much in the new Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at the school’s Aldwych campus, and London’s diversity was a key draw to the 50% of students here who come from abroad. But there are key threats around the corner, with China spending heavily on its top universities in a bid to take the lead, and, closer to home, the key problem of affordability when it comes to accommodation. This may mean London attracts the richest rather than the most talented students, she said.

Robinson said that it was interesting to note that the London effect had drawn many other universities to set up campuses in the capital, and that people come to the LSE because it is in London. But while the LSE aimed to create a sense of place, the concept of a campus was perhaps alien to London.

The London Metropolitan University’s head of estates development Bill Hunt said it attracted a high number of mature students who are more demanding and sophisticated in how they approach where they will study – estates have become more important as students value a place that looks right, does the right job and has the right support spaces, with flexibility another plus point. For Ian Caldwell, director of estates at Kings College London, the great things about London are the things that aren’t universities, such as the world-class cultural assets Kings partners with. But one of the issues it is debating with its Canada Water outpost is how one gets over the fact that it is two stops on the underground, and how to ‘put heritage and history into it’ in order to attract students.

Kathryn Firth, chief of design, London Legacy Development Corporation raised the need to strike a balance between an inward-looking institution and one which is just another piece of city where it happens that education is going on. Stephen Wells, director, estates and facilities at Queen Mary, University of London suggested that one attractor was the idea of a campus close to learning buildings so that students can ‘roll out of bed’ to a lecture. But students are now very price-sensitive about the cost of accommodation; a cost for today as opposed to the course costs which are a debt for tomorrow. Cambridge shares similar problems, said Ravinder Dhillon, Head of Projects, University of Cambridge – although it has a strong brand of its own it is only 45 minutes from London. ‘We’re part of this issue’, he said. Cambridge is a small City with complex planning issues and similar construction costs that has a significant programme for research facilities and housing. It is also working to introduce layers of greater permeability for public access into some of its more historically landlocked sites.

Third party providers of student housing are seeing something of a boom, with guaranteed 6.5% yields and still a huge demand for beds. So, suggested Steve Howe, director of estates, University of the Arts, whatever planning authorities could do to assist universities to build their own halls or to restrict developers on rents would be appreciated. Howe’s institution is about to apply for permission to build a hall in Camberwell, but this was ‘a drop in the ocean’ compared to what is needed. With 15 sites ranging from its Kings Cross campus to Victorian schools it also has the real challenge of creating any sort of campus identity, but learning does not just happen in academic buildings now, he said. One of his challenges is to rationalise the estate.

Another in that same boat of making the most of its existing estate is Bill Hunt of the Met, who added that affordability was a key problem – an architecture course will now cost £100,000 and costs had forced one of his own children to attend university from home; the other to rule it out completely. Robinson said he wished that local authorities recognised that universities had a wider social mission and that they were effectively providing affordable housing. It was also regrettable, he said, that the GLA had dropped its proposed policy of a presumption in favour of university development at the last minute.

The UCL has the opposite problem of being too much like a campus, said Alex Lifschutz, director, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, and there was a problem in store in terms of the quality of the student housing being built today. One lesson from the past is provided by UCL’s stock – the best buildings were the oldest and most flexible; the worst the newest, built very often for a single use.

Higher education establishments are a big driver of the economy and creating a place, said Colin Wilson, strategic planning manager at the GLA, something Argent grasped in the masterplanning of its King’s Cross site, and the GLA is now writing in such elements into opportunity area plans as a result. But the GLA’s challenge, said Stephen Wells, is to help create ‘synergies’ across London because of the affordability problem, to ease a situation where private developers can bid 50% more for a site in Whitechapel than the HE body, and where finding sites is so difficult. The link between the academic and the residential is a ‘huge missed opportunity in London’ said Rupert Cook, director, Architecture PLB. It is of course not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ picture, but universities should be part of the city, and play a civic role – thankfully, he said, the ‘obsession’ with gated communities is ‘unwrapping in a positive way.’

Other points made at the session included:
·      The marketing of universities is still ‘woefully’ behind the opportunities
·      The collaboration that goes in on in teaching could usefully be matched by attending more to accommodation matters in groups of HE institutions, ‘to break the stranglehold of the private developer’
·      The challenge for new sites like Canada Water is to give them ‘identity’ 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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