A new report for the Russell Group draws attention to 67 significant building projects being carried out across the group of 24 research-led universities (http://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/top-universities-outline-£9bn-development-pipeline/5068674.article). The spending to 2017 covers facilities for research and teaching, science, technology and engineering campuses, student accommodation, business schools, and IT facilities. The impetus behind this growth and investment was identified by Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, as being primarily international competition in the higher education market, pushing the UK’s universities to work harder to improve and maintain high quality facilities in order to attract the best overseas students, academics, and research staff. Tuition fees have raised students’ expectations of their university experience – while universities are also under pressure to provide access to decent and affordable homes for staff priced out of the open housing market.
Tuition fees, especially the revenue generated by international students, have led to increased income for many (if not all) universities. But, as Amanda Baillieu points out, writing in BDOnline today, the new funding stream is not necessarily leading to high quality new architecture in the university sector. She suggests university estate managers with a project management background are ‘not keen on competitions’ and unlikely to award a project to an architect without ‘the necessary PI cover’. As a result, ‘the architecture is uninspiring, prosaic and capable of damaging the very image it’s trying to sell’ – as with Oxford University’s new Castle Mill student housing entered for BD’s Carbuncle Cup.
Baillieu suggests the new buildings are ‘safe and office-like which exactly fits universities’ business-like mindset’ – and also appeals to overseas students familiar with identical typologies in their home countries such as China and South Korea (http://www.bdonline.co.uk/comment/university-challenge/5068774.article).
On the other hand, the University of Manchester has just appointed the Dutch practice Mecanoo, supported by Penoyre and Prasad, as architects for its new £200m engineering campus, both of whom have established reputations for high quality architectural design. The outcome depends of course on what they are allowed to do. Meanwhile, the University of Cambridge is working with a whole range of design-focused architectural practices of different sizes, appointed through an elaborate competitive process, on its new residential and academic quarter in the city (North West Cambridge – http://www.nwcambridge.co.uk).
So there are some emerging precedents out there for a more aspirational model of new university design and construction. And one might assume too that prospective donors would be keen for assurance of a decent architectural return for their money before associating their name with a new university building, however good the facilities it may offer.
Plus, universities are viewed as increasingly important institutional actors in urban regeneration processes dismantled by cuts in funding from other sources. There is an expectation that, drawing on their substantial resources of knowledge and expertise, as well as access to finance, they could and should be establishing new benchmarks for high quality, sustainable urban interventions which both enhance the urban landscape and become the driver for wider social benefits beyond the immediate academic community. So, if we are about to witness a new ‘golden age’ (see Baillieu above) of university construction, let’s hope it will raise the bar for standards across the whole field of urban development.