Campus close-up: Aberystwyth University

Vice-chancellor April McMahon is planning upgraded campus facilities

July 3, 2014

Source: Alamy

Upward ambition: Aberystwyth says it has set out a clear strategy until 2017

Aberystwyth University has been in the headlines more than most over the past year. Its announcement in March that it will set up a campus in Mauritius attracted national attention, while in January it managed to safely evacuate more than 100 students from seafront accommodation after an enormous storm hit the Welsh coastal town.

But there has been negative press too. A petition was posted anonymously calling for vice-chancellor April McMahon to resign after big falls in Aberystwyth’s position in domestic university league tables. It has now attracted more than 1,000 signatures.

There has also been disquiet locally over the suspension of two managers of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre (which is part of the university) last year amid fears that public access to the centre could be restricted. However, the university said the action was linked to health and safety concerns and one of the managers has now been reinstated.

Professor McMahon acknowledged to Times Higher Education that there was “work to do” over the university’s league table position but “you can’t turn something round in 20 minutes. It takes time.”

In terms of staff and new buildings, “we haven’t invested for a long, long time” but now the campus is covered with scaffolding, she said, as the university’s estate is improved.

A new accommodation village for about 1,000 students should be ready for the coming academic year, and about £5 million is being spent upgrading old, football terrace-style lecture halls into rooms that are less cramped and festooned with new screens and recording technology for lecturers.

Professor McMahon said the university has set out a clear strategy until 2017 and she used a sporting analogy to explain why Aberystwyth’s ranking position had fallen. “If you’re a gymnast, you do your run up and you know which way you’re going. You jump on to the trampoline and which way does it go first? It goes down, of course. Then you get a hell of a bounce and that’s where we’re going.”

This month, in time for the next academic year, Aberystwyth will open a Teaching Excellence Academy. It will comprise several teaching rooms containing equipment that will enable academics to capture and replay lectures so that they can review their teaching.

There is also a studio that allows lecturers to record online learning materials. These facilities can be used by academics who are simply interested in improving their teaching, but the university also hopes to make the academy into a centre for pedagogic research.

“We want that to be a really big exciting research excellence framework return for 2020,” Professor McMahon said.

This is part of a wider “revaluing” of teaching and learning in promotion criteria for academics, she said. “It’s possible for folks to get a little bit dejected if they feel they’re putting in all that effort [on teaching] and then nothing comes back in terms of reward and appreciation.”

While visiting the university, THE was told by one manager that it hopes falling student satisfaction scores will turn around next year after the undergraduate cohort recruited in 2011 – when the university had to bring in bunk beds because it over-recruited – graduates this summer.

It also emerged during the interview with Professor McMahon that recruitment for Aberystwyth’s Mauritius campus is to be delayed by a year until 2015 because it is still waiting on validation of its awards from the island’s authorities. “They’ve got a bit of a backlog at the moment,” she said, and described the delay as “purely administrative”.

The university is also looking to set up a London campus, although Professor McMahon stressed that it was “just talking about opportunities there” and the governing body had only endorsed an “intention” to set one up.

Ideally, she said, it would open in 2015-16 – although this was before the announcement on 24 June of a Quality Assurance Agency investigation into UK university London branch campuses in the wake of a government probe into the abuse of student visas.

In numbers

£5m spent upgrading lecture halls to provide more space and the latest technology

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