Northamp­ton pow­er­house: hopes new-build will bring ur­ban re­newal

£350 mil­lion cam­pus of­fers glass walls and round-the-clock open­ing. Jack Grove vis­its

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

“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

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