Northampton powerhouse: hopes new-build will bring urban renewal
£350 million campus offers glass walls and round-the-clock opening. Jack Grove visits
“Ask most people here if this is a ‘university town’ and they’d probably say it isn’t,” admitted Nick Petford, vice- chancellor of the University of Northampton.
While Professor Petford is always quick to praise the achievements of his institution, he recognises that it has yet to transform the character and economic prospects of the East Midlands town it inhabits, in the way that many northern cities have been overhauled by the “student pound”. That will change over the next few months, he hopes, following the university’s move to a new £350 million riverside campus in the heart of Northampton.
“Bringing 3,000 or so students into the town centre every day will have a huge economic impact on Northampton,” explained Professor Petford, adding that the district close to the Waterside campus is fast becoming “more dynamic and more youth-orientated” with its shops, bars and cafes, and new student union-run nightclub.
Delivering civic transformation was impossible at its old campus on the northern edge of Northampton, which has now been sold to developers for housing, said Professor Petford.
“It served its time well but it was never built to be a university,” he said of the former teacher training college, which was built in the 1970s and expanded over the years.
With some 12,000 students and 2,000 staff arriving at Waterside over the next few weeks, the campus’ completion “on time and on budget” should be considered a “major UK success story”, particularly given the long delays to other infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and HS2, added Professor Petford.
“It shows that if universities are allowed to get on with the job, we are very competent at getting big projects done,” he said, adding that he believes that the new campus will “draw new business investment to the area”.
The new site is already proving to be a “big draw” for students, with Northampton registering an unprecedented number of visitors for the “biggest ever open day” in a few weeks, said Professor Petford.
However, the university’s business model – which will see it repay a £232 million Treasury-backed bond and £60 million in other loans – does not rely on any student number growth. “That seems like a sensible place to be right now,” he said, reflecting on the headwinds facing UK universities, which include tuition fee freezes and declining numbers of young people.
However, it is easy to see why many students would be interested in signing up. Instead of an ageing suburban campus, Northampton can now offer some hugely impressive new teaching buildings – in particular its Learning Hub, an ultra-modern four-storey edifice that brings together teaching rooms, library stacks, silent study areas, student support services and several cafes under one roof.
Floor-to-ceiling windows, glasswalled seminar rooms and sleek oak panelling to reduce noise are the signature features of the hub, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Glass walls bring a real sense of openness and transparency, but also that we are blurring the lines between teaching and learning,” said Chris Powis, head of library and learning services, on the decision to situate library users in close proximity to other learners.
Specialist teaching rooms at the hub, which include a paramedic training area containing a full-sized ambulance and mock police custody suite, provide a contrast to rooms available to all disciplines.
The new student union building, the Engine Shed, has also been a hit with students and staff. Previously a derelict Victorian railway repair shed, it has been converted into an improbably hip cafe-bar thanks to a £1.3 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant. “It’s just a really great place,” said union president Rafael Garcia-Krailing. “Our old venue was a nightclub that we had to repurpose during the day, so it was a jack of all trades, master of none.”
Powered by its own woodchip- burning electricity plant, which also supplies a recently created 1,000room student village, the new campus is also fully accessible to the public, most of whom will remember the site as a closed-off industrial wasteland. The 58-acre development is surprisingly green for a new build – thanks to the planting of 1,000 new trees, 18,000 square metres of turf, and 70,000 other plants – and is now connected to the town by two new bridges.
The new campus has shocked many staff who are familiar with less state-of-the-art teaching areas, said John Sinclair, dean of the Faculty for Arts, Science and Teaching.
“When people saw it for the first time back in August, it was close to a jaw-dropping moment for them,” said Mr Sinclair, who joined the institution in 1992 when it was a college accredited by the University of Leicester.
“It puts down a marker for the university saying we are an ambitious, outward-looking university with a 21st-century campus that will play a major part in revitalising Northampton town centre.”
Freshened up the University of Northampton’s new Waterside campus combines modern architecture with green space