Campus close-up: University of Cambridge

No college, no problem. Institution aims to turn heads of international researchers with high-quality accommodation. Chris Havergal reports

September 18, 2014

On what was once farmland on the edge of Cambridge, diggers are moving in to create a new academic quarter for the historic university city.

The £1 billion North West Cambridge development will eventually boast 3,000 homes, half of them set aside for university staff, plus 100,000 square metres of research space and 2,000 additional bedrooms for postgraduate researchers.

Given the University of Cambridge’s central role in the growth of the city, it seems fitting that it is at the forefront of this next phase of expansion, and the institution hopes the development will attract the next generation of leading thinkers with the offer – at last – of affordable, high-quality housing.

However, the new community may have quite a different feel to a city centre that evolved around quadrangles and spires.

One distinction is that, despite the impressive scale of the project, the site will not include a new college, meaning that a social and organisational dynamic that has driven much of the university’s enlargement will be missing.

This is perhaps a surprise, since a working group set up to investigate the issue three years ago concluded that North West Cambridge “must have a new college at its heart” and warned it might otherwise become little more than a “dormitory suburb”.

Furthermore, the focus on accommodating postdoctoral researchers means that North West Cambridge may not bustle with undergraduates like Trinity Street does.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the project was taking the university in a new direction.

“If Cambridge is going to stay world class, it needs to be constantly reinventing itself and thinking of the future,” said Mr Hillman, who knows the city well from his time as a parliamentary candidate there. “Cambridge is an easy sell to international researchers and academics until they see the accommodation. If you are trying to attract people from places like California and they see the amount of house you get for your money, that’s the point at which it’s hard to get them to sign up,” he added.

“However, I do think elements of the ‘Cambridge experience’ will be missing from the site. One is the traditional college and another is undergraduates, and [they] do add to the greater good of Cambridge by making it a more vibrant place.”

Funding could explain the lack of a college, since a new foundation might require a further substantial endowment.

But it is the financial clout of the university that is making North West Cambridge a reality, with the institution securing a triple-A credit rating to issue a £350 million public bond that is helping to bankroll the project.

The whole venture is not without controversy, with a housing statement for the development judging in 2011 that staff should not spend more than 30 per cent of their net income on accommodation – allowing employees paid up to about £47,000 to qualify for “affordable” housing – raising eyebrows in a city where thousands of people earning considerably less languish on council waiting lists.

However, there is hope that the university’s ability to deliver residential development on a large scale will ease pressure on local housing, freeing up some properties previously rented for researchers, while new facilities such as sports and community centres will be open to all.

This emphasis on accessibility may feed into the college debate, with Heather Topel, deputy project director for North West Cambridge, arguing that the aim was to translate some of the benefits of the collegiate atmosphere into a development that was integrated with the city, and not just a university enclave.

“One of the things that is unique in Cambridge is walking through collegiate courts, where you go through an archway and something opens up,” she said. “That’s something we want to build on, without the exclusivity of it. North West Cambridge will have courtyards, but everyone will be able to walk through them, and the integration between the university and private housing will be much more refined.”

It may be that in the future postgraduate accommodation on the site is used as the nucleus of a new college or is incorporated into existing ones.

Meanwhile, the relocation of university departments and the opening of new facilities will attract undergraduates to North West Cambridge, Ms Topel said.

She added: “There isn’t at the moment a college identified that will be expanding on the site. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future, but at the moment we assume it is not the case.”

In numbers

3,000 new homes are planned at the North West Cambridge development

Campus news

University of Sheffield
A hundred academics and more than 150 artistic collaborators will join forces for a series of city-wide performances and events at an 11-day festival backed by a university. The University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind is designed “to make complicated subjects accessible to the public”. Highlights will include an interactive video game art gallery and a performance of Holst’s The Planets, featuring professor of astrophysics Paul Crowther and produced by Stewart Campbell.

Harper Adams University
University researchers are contributing to a project that aims to improve dairy cow health and welfare through the use of sensor technology. The collaborative project, known as DASIE (Dairy Animal Sensor Integrated Engineering), has been co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency – Innovate UK – and is led by IceRobotics in association with Harper Adams University, Dairy Crest and Kingshay. The project aims to ensure that swift action can be taken to address health problems such as lameness and mastitis before they escalate.

Aston University
Carbon monoxide can be used to protect against life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms after a heart attack, according to a study. In research published in Nature Communications, scientists at Aston Medical School at Aston University and Peking University in China found that carbon monoxide can block the channels that carry potassium into heart cells, which slows the heart rate and counteracts the dangerous effects of abnormal rhythm.

University of Bristol
Watching a film featuring a dog can leave a lasting impression. Researchers at the University of Bristol, in collaboration with others from US institutions, analysed 87 films and American Kennel Club data. They found that the release of films featuring a specific breed often correlates with an increase in ownership of that breed. The 1959 Disney film The Shaggy Dog, which features an Old English sheepdog, led to a hundredfold increase in owner registrations of the breed, they say.

Teesside University
The long-standing head of a post-92 university in the northeast of England is to retire next August. Graham Henderson, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Teesside University, will step down in a year’s time, bringing a close to a 40-year career that so far has included 11 years at the institution’s helm. Professor Henderson joined the university in 1999 as deputy vice-chancellor before becoming its head four years later.

University of Oxford
A map that shows areas most likely to see animals getting infected with the Ebola virus has been created by academics. The team of researchers at the University of Oxford created the map, which could help scientists understand where future outbreaks of the disease among humans may occur. Animal populations harbouring the virus are likely to be in a vast forested region of Central and West Africa, according to the research.

London South Bank University
Academics and senior business leaders met at a London university to discuss women’s role in the computer games industry. The fourth annual European Women in Games Conference, which took place at London South Bank University on 10 September, also included debates on how to set up your own games company, how to encourage more schoolchildren into the industry and how to gain your first job in computer game design.

Institute of Contemporary Music Performance
Tutors at a London music school have helped to find the world’s best guitarist. Ben Jones and Gareth Dylan-Smith, from the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, formed the backing band of bass and drums for the eight soloists who competed in the Guitar Idol Final, which took place in London on 13 September. Contestants included Michael Tillotson, a former student at the institute.

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