Innovation London – investing in higher education estates

Thursday 22 November 2012

London’s internationally revered higher education estates must continue to invest in order to stay ahead of the game in an increasingly globalised market.

That was one of the key themes to emerge at a conference organised by NLA yesterday to discuss the situation for the capital’s universities in the light of the Browne Review.

Chairman of the University of the Arts London Sir John Tusa kicked off by detailing how the six London colleges under the University of the Arts banner, accommodated in a ‘higgledy piggledy’ manner across 26 sites, had been rationalised down to 18, within 10 years. One of the headline moves was that of Central St Martin’s to King’s Cross, where the development agreement was signed in October 2008, just two weeks after the Lehman crash – without a Plan B. ‘Within three years we were in’, said Tusa. ‘I still can’t believe it.’ Tusa said the architects Stanton Williams had done ‘a wonderful job,’ not least in recognising that the students might be ‘terrified at ‘posh architects’ creating a too pristine space – as a result they created elements such as ‘sacrificial walls’ as part of a good creative environment.  Next on Tusa’s list is for London College of Communications to move to a single site in Elephant & Castle and for the London College of Fashion to move from six sites to three, or even one. But educational institutions must beware of monetizing too much the relationship with their students or ‘customers’ – a term Tusa ‘loathes and hates’.

And yet money is an obviously crucial part of the changing landscape. Mark Cleverly, head of Higher Education at EC Harris compared the Browne Review to the impact caused by Hurricane Sandy. But for some it is less a Hurricane Sandy moment and more of an Olympic moment in terms of the opportunities that might result, he said. Since the review, student numbers have dropped by some 12 per cent in comparison with 2011, with 57,000 fewer students and representing a £500m contraction in the market. And empty spaces bring risk to the long-term financial stability. Cleverly said the potential for a university to drive economic growth in a region is huge, however. Trends in the area include collocation, moves to prolong the lives of existing buildings, and attempts to deliver more of a comprehensive student experience as well as solving the problem of finding enough student accommodation. There was also a discernible drive to go after more international students and markets, and some universities have gone to the capital markets in a bid to finance their schemes. ‘The race to the top is on, and it is now a truly global one.’

The conference also heard from a number of examples of higher education estates and their development programmes, including UCL. Director of UCL Estates Andrew Grainger said that, with its Bloomsbury site set to reach capacity in the next 5-10 years, the expansion in Stratford on the similarly sized Carpenters site will help in the creation of new types of space and collaborations with business and entrepreneurs. ‘We want to mirror what UCL did in 1826 in Bloomsbury, in Stratford’, he said. ‘We see the site as providing a civic gateway into the Olympic Park.’ It is not without challenge, however, including dealing effectively with local residents, where the potential 3m sq ft, £1bn scheme will be built.

Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands director Alex Lifschutz outlined plans for the existing Bloomsbury estate, which will involve working with the existing fabric, improving permeability of the ‘gummed up’ site and enhancing the student experience of a series of structures, many of which resemble inward-looking government buildings. Birkbeck, meanwhile, is creating the University Square project, again in Stratford, another result of a quest for more teaching space away from its existing central London accommodation. Its £33m Make Architects-designed building – including the cost of the purchase from Newham – is a joint scheme with senior partner UEL. Imperial is likewise expanding in White City – the closest area to its South Kensington main campus that was still ‘affordable’, said the College Fund Board’s John Anderson. The project, which includes student accommodation and a research and translation hub, also involves subsidized housing pitched at retaining talent. ‘We strongly believe we can be a catalyst for regeneration in White City’, he said.

And finally, University of Greenwich head of estates Peter Fotheringham and Heneghan Peng Architects director Roisin Heneghan showed how even those institutions whose funding and staff resources are dwarfed by the big players can put together high quality schemes, in their case a school of architecture which will feature offices, a library, café, TV studies and roof gardens on a World Heritage Site. ‘We know we have got to get better and attract better students’, said Fotheringham. ‘We have to get better at what we are delivering.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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