Unilateral assent

Unilateral assent

York University’s new campus has not been without its controversial moments but it appears to be settling down, as Peter Baber reports.

Universities haven’t exactly been having a good ride in terms of publicity at the moment. There was all the rage about the London School of Economics’ rather too close ties with the Gaddaffi regime in Libya. That followed hot on the heels of student protests about tuition fees, and an ever-increasing number of universities which have already announced that they are going to charge the highest fees they can as soon as they are able to.

So it is gratifying to discover that one development at a university in Yorkshire – the University of York’s Heslington East campus – appears to be bedding down well towards the end of its first full year of operation. Not that the site – a near-doubling of the university’s campus that has so far cost £500m and could in the end amount to £750m – has been without controversy. When plans were first mooted there was vocal opposition from local villagers and some councillors – although the council as a whole was in favour.

Although the land on which the site sits had been designated as suitable for university expansion in what amounts to York’s local development plan since the 1960s, villagers feared the new development would cause traffic chaos, and would impinge on the green belt. As a result the proposed development went to a public inquiry, although then secretary of state Ruth Kelly approved the plans in May 2007. Just over three years on, in October last year, the doors were opened on the first buildings of the new campus at the end of a building project which had come in on time and, unusually for academia, under budget.

“That was very important for us because of all the adverse publicity there has been in recent months about other large projects going way over budget,” says Elizabeth Heaps, the university’s pro-vice-chancellor for estates and strategic projects. The project has been over eight years in the planning.

“In 2003 we first started a >>debate about where the university was going in terms not just of how we were perceived but also size,” says Heaps.

“Even after the new campus is completed, we will still be one of the UK’s smaller universities with 14,000 students. Yet we are constantly coming in among the top ten universities in the country both for teaching and research.” In total so far the new campus includes a business hub named after former vice chancellor Ron Cooke, an associated business catalyst building, a new building for a new Theatre, Film and Television department, a new Computer Sciences building, and a building shared by the six-year-old School of Management and the School of Law, whose first undergraduates are due to sit their finals this June. Heaps says these areas were chosen after the university took consideration of what it was already strong in, and undertook market research in where outsiders felt it should go. There were aesthetic considerations to take on board as well.

Thanks in part to it being founded in 1963, the existing university had become rather too well known within academic circles for its brutalist architecture, something that sits incongruously with the city’s medieval origins. So architecture practice BDP was appointed to come up with a plan that would be suitably different.

“We were aware that the eyes of the world would be on us, and we wanted to make a statement,” says Heaps. The result is a development with adventurous use of timber and glass – including a cinema auditorium that juts out into the sky – and more curves instead of hard concrete edges. There’s a commitment to sustainability too. Plans are underfoot to build a biomass plant to help power the new facilities – although as with the campus itself these plans have not gone without local opposition. There has been a huge amount of public investment in the scheme. Most of the funding has come from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Science City York. As a result, some tough targets have been set for all of the departments that have relocated here to justify such spending. And much of these revolve around business – both increasing the university’s links with business, and fostering more business start-ups. The School of Management, for example, has been charged with engendering 178 business inputs – or interventions to help businesses – in two years, and engendering 20 business start-ups over the same period. So, how have these intentions been playing out in the first few months of existence? Perhaps the first place to start would be the Ron Cooke Hub. This has been designed very much with intermingling in mind.

Apart from the usual cafés and meeting areas the building includes a dedicated island of interaction complete with whiteboards and bean bags where anyone can come together for an impromptu brainstorming. The York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis has academics from different disciplines coming together to spark ideas off each other and work on joint research.It has taken space in the hub. Business manager Grahame Brown is perhaps most impressed with the space and facilities within the Springboard, a section of the building designed for start-ups.

This includes 15 private offices which are rented out on a sliding scale starting at £100 a month, and 15 spaces in shared accommodation.

“We’ve only been open six months but the private offices are already full,” says Brown. But he is equally excited about the whole package available for wannabe entrepreneurs. The university already has what it claims is the largest student entrepreneur’s club in the country, with 1,400 members. A recent mock Dragon’s Den event it held attracted Julie Meyer, one of the real dragons off TV, as a judge. Those who want to take their ideas further can make use of an applications lab to try their ideas out, and can then move through the Springboard as they develop into a company. Once they have grown too large for that – and ideally Brown wants to move the businesses out over a year – they can make use of the nearby Catalyst building to develop themselves as a company more formally. Brown, who has a background both in academia (horticulture) and business, says he had a good look around other universities and similar business incubator organisations in the UK to see what was out there before coming to York in October.

“But I couldn’t find anywhere that had the complete package from student clubs through research to setting up a business,” he says. Nor are links with existing business forgotten. The university has a strong audio research department and it has been involved in setting up a demonstration space, tentatively called the Cave, where you can demonstrate your product in a sealed off room on 360° projections, in 3D if need be, and with 28-speaker surround sound. Events too, are in the offing. At the end of March the hub is hosting an evening event sponsored by JWPCreers, a local accountancy firm, featuring an economic forecast from Peter Smith, the university’s professor of economics and finance. Over at the School of Management, business co-ordinator Gill Cutting says the school’s move into one new building makes a huge change from the old days when it was scattered over several different buildings. This certainly matters when the student intake keeps increasing – up to 260 this year – and many are now paying full fees.

As for links with business, her Centre for Business Collaboration has already been engaged in developing a virtual learning environment for the Minster Veterinary Practice, a five-brand veterinary surgery company, to help with training. The closer links with computer sciences fostered by the new campus have helped here. The centre has also been running consultancy work with Batley-based Meritmill, a floor covering supplier. This has led to the company reversing its decision to move all remaining production to China.

“They’ve even started moving some production back here,” she says. Most recently, she has been getting students actively engaged in helping the Greater Ripon Improvement Partnership, a 70-member local regeneration network, come up with ways to regenerate the town, taking into account the new era of very limited, even non-existent, central funding. As a result of such work, she has now launched a portal where businesses can log requests for assistance (www.york. ac.uk/management/business/student-projects).

“When I joined last year this school wasn’t really outward facing at all,” she says. “It was partly because they were busy with a staff to student ratio of 29 to 1. This is quite a turnaround.” Although the computer science department dates back to 1977, department head professor John McDermid says: “This is the first time in the 24 years I have been here that we have been in a building with empty offices.” That’s an important consideration when it comes to fostering spin-outs. Successful spin-outs in the past have included Rapita, a consultancy that develops tools to reduce the cost and time involved in measuring a system’s performance.

Another company that produced systems for predicting failure within car engine control units has since beensnapped up by multinational consultancy ETAS. Current spin-outs the department is working on include one that has developed a system for providing infinitely different scenarios in computer games – so that, say, when you’re playing Assassin’s Creed you won’t always meet the same member of the Borgia family in the same piazza whenever you play.

In its new building the department itself has a target of creating 125 new jobs between now and 2013. “We are already about half way, having created just over 60 so far,” says McDermid. But his 140 staff also have to help create ten new spin-outs or spin-ins – companies that come in to make use of its research – in that time. And McDermid is concerned that its targets on making greater connections with local small businesses may be much more challenging now that central government has abolished an innovation voucher scheme, under which such businesses could get grants of up to £3,700 for such work.

“That helped to lubricate the introductions,” he says. “Otherwise we are not as easily geared up for interaction in that way. I am hoping the new local enterprise partnerships will be able to help out in this.” Last but not least, the Theatre, Film and Television Department is still part-way through taking its first undergraduates through their first year. But commercial manager Carole Dove says the production companies she has shown around have already been impressed with the fully accessible TV studios, theatre and 150-seat digital cinema on offer.

She says many of them claim what is on offer at the university is superior to anything in the north – the BBC’s Media City included. The department is already in discussions with Kudos, the production company behind TV’s Spooks, about using its facilities – and that, she says, should be good for students seeking internships. She says: “We aim to train students in the best that’s available. Then you can scale down. If you have only ever done single camera work, for example, it’s hard to scale up.” Not long after the new campus was opened, the university was also named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards.

Among other things, the judges were particularly impressed with the university’s ability to combine academic excellence with social inclusion. Heaps says the need to keep in touch with the local community is very much part of the university’s ethos. It’s why, for example, unlike other universities, York has not been so actively engaged in fostering strong links, and sometimes departments, overseas. “There wouldn’t be any point in doing all this if we didn’t think it was going to benefit local people,” she says. “Our core belief has been trying to do that.”