A eureka moment: go local

After years of battling the Nimbys, John Brooks formulated a campus plan that articulates Manchester Met's values

May 7, 2009

Sometimes, being a vice-chancellor does not require a great deal of intelligence - just the ability to see the blindingly obvious. After two years of failing to persuade Didsbury's middle classes that a further development of our campus in the leafy and wealthy suburbs of South Manchester was in their best interests, I was driving home through Hulme when a thought struck me.

I parked my car at the roadside of an undeveloped brownfield site I now know as Birley Fields, and imagined an education and health campus located there, where disadvantaged communities would have access to it.

My eureka moment was striking in its simplicity - our mission and values speak of community engagement, equality of opportunity, widening participation and access to life-changing education, and we are committed to regeneration and employment, yet we had fought for the right to invest in a wealthy and unwelcoming community.

Meanwhile, on our doorstep was an opportunity that would help to transform Manchester Metropolitan University and place us at the heart of inner-city educational improvement and economic regeneration. A hurriedly arranged meeting with Manchester City Council proved that my idea would not only garner strong political support, but would also gather momentum as the concept was shared and refined.

Six months on and Birley Fields is one of the most intoxicating projects in Manchester. It has proved to be a magnet for innovative thinking on community engagement and filled the gap in a city-led strategy to address disadvantage. It has been welcomed by our academic departments, which quickly realised the huge opportunities of investing in this challenging and rewarding location. Students and staff have seized the opportunities for volunteering, and local residents have voted for six public engagement fellowships that will create genuine two-way knowledge exchanges with the wider community.

The opportunities for shared services and collaboration with local communities appear endless. School improvement and access are high on all local agendas, and the impact of our faculties of health and education on local service quality will be profound.

Employment is a priority and a campus job shop will provide access to our employment partnership scheme, as well as training for those who do not yet have the skills required to secure work.

An integrated healthcare service is planned for students and local residents. We intend to focus much of our volunteering through an "urban village hall" that offers flexible space for student and community use. Enterprise will be an important aspect of the campus, too, with further development of our graduate start-up project, Innospace, to support social enterprises.

Planning a new integrated campus has also facilitated a groundbreaking approach to environmental sustainability. Inner-city developments are often constrained by existing services and planning constraints. Our intention is to create a mixed-use estate with integrated activities to reduce energy consumption, minimise waste, exploit passive natural resources, harvest and recycle rainwater and build in flexibility.

At the heart of our master plan is an extensive green space, another shared facility. The objective is not only to establish a sustainable campus, but also to provide a test bed for the research and evaluation of green models within a constrained urban environment. We hope to develop and test cutting-edge solutions for tomorrow's cities.

But in the recession, does any of this make economic sense? Our strategy is to invest £300 million over the next seven years to rationalise seven campuses into two and to create world-class facilities. An independent impact assessment has already shown that Birley Fields will deliver additional local spend of about £24 million a year and create more than 800 new jobs in Hulme and Moss Side.

So the challenge I now face is to make the business case to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the North West Development Agency and the council, so that with their backing the project's potential can be realised. My tale of two campuses will have a happy ending, or else my faith in the blindingly obvious will be destroyed.

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