Campus close-up: Swansea University

A soon-to open campus aims to create big economic opportunities for Wales

May 28, 2015
Swansea University Bay Campus concept illustration
Source: Swansea University
Room for expansion: the Bay Campus will act as a catalyst for promoting the region as an investment hot spot

It once provided jobs for thousands of workers. But the decline and eventual closure of BP’s petrochemical operations in Swansea was mirrored all over Wales as the heavy industries of old melted away.

Now it is hoped that part of this estate will once more be a model for and a mainstay of the Welsh economy as Swansea University’s new Bay Campus.

The £450 million project will have at its heart cutting-edge engineering research and high-level skills training. The College of Engineering and the School of Management will be the first departments to move to the site later this year, alongside 5,000 students and 1,000 staff.

Collaboration with industry will feature heavily, with major firms such as Rolls-Royce and Tata Steel already planning research partnerships and more expected to follow.

The new campus has attracted significant funding from the Welsh and the UK governments, as well as from the European Union, in the hope that high-grade research and a skilled workforce will encourage businesses to relocate to the Swansea region, and thus spur economic regeneration in Wales.

Richard Davies, Swansea’s vice-chancellor, is eagerly awaiting the opening of the new campus. Swansea had, he said, “fallen a bit behind the pack of research-led universities” at the turn of the millennium, and efforts to catch up have long been restricted by the size of the landlocked Singleton Park Campus.

“We didn’t have the space for growing the academic offering, and we didn’t have the space for working with industry in the way industry wants to get involved with the university much more closely,” the vice-chancellor explained. “They want open innovation working with academics, so the whole campus was designed after talking to our partners about what they wanted.”

In anticipation of the move, Swansea has already doubled the size of its engineering department, and plans are to double it again over the next four or five years.

The new campus will also allow the university to increase its student numbers, from the current level of 16,000 or so to about 25,000 over the next three or four years.

Tradition of trail-blazing

This represents a period of significant change for Swansea, but for Iwan Davies, the pro vice-chancellor (internationalisation and external affairs) who has led the development of the Bay Campus, it is very much in line with the university’s traditions.

He highlighted that Swansea had become the UK’s first campus university under principal John Fulton in the late 1940s, long before the expansion of the plate-glass universities, and underlined that the campus experience was an important part of the “Swansea experience”.

Professor Iwan Davies said that Swansea also had a proud history of working with industry. BP itself had been a long-standing benefactor of the university, and the company has donated the land and substantial funding for the new campus.

But he acknowledged that the old model of economic development in Wales, of simply providing land grants, “doesn’t create the sustainable model that collaborating on research and development does”.

To foster industry collaborations, Swansea has created new research institutes with a focus on applied research and commercialisation.

And moving the School of Management to the new campus was a direct response to economic needs, Professor Iwan Davies said, because many engineering start-ups needed graduates with strong business skills to help extract the full potential of their innovations.

The aim of devoting resources and attention to the new campus was to turn the university into “a catalyst for promoting the region as an investment hot spot”, Professor Iwan Davies said.

“What industry requires is world-class research to scale and also enough flow of graduates coming through, and this is an investment in both,” he said. “We want to build up the scale of internationally excellent research to provide sufficient resilience for multinational enterprises to potentially co-locate not simply research and development but also potentially bigger facilities, such as service facilities and manufacturing facilities, within the locality.”

When all the talk is of the strength of the London economy and the so-called “northern powerhouse”, the university leadership wants to remind people that Swansea should not be forgotten.

“This is not something you can create overnight,” Professor Iwan Davies said. “Our success is related to the fact that we have been collaborating with major industry for 30 or 40 years.”

chris.havergal@tesglobal.com


In numbers

 £450m: cost of developing the Bay Campus


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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: The crucible for firing up industry and innovation (28 May 2015)

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