Campus close-up: Birmingham City University

A new campus site is taking shape in the ‘learning quarter’ of Birmingham city centre

January 16, 2014

Perry Barr is a suburb of Birmingham – about three miles north of the city centre – that hosts a greyhound track, the Birmingham Brummies speedway team and the M6 motorway.

Until now, it has also been the main home of Birmingham City University. But a move from Perry Barr is under way – in the face of fierce opposition from some in the area – as the university shifts from eight campuses scattered across Birmingham to two new principal sites on the city centre’s eastern fringe, where there is a major regeneration project to create a “learning quarter”.

Birmingham City’s £180 million development is a transformative change for an institution that started life as the City of Birmingham Polytechnic when five colleges merged in 1971, became the University of Central England in 1992 and was renamed Birmingham City in 2007.

Cliff Allan, the vice-chancellor, said the development “demonstrates the kind of university we are trying to be – which is one without walls, having close interaction with business and industry”.

The first phase of the move is the Parkside Building, which opened last summer. It is home to two of the university’s key areas of strength: the School of Media and the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), an institution established by the city’s industrialists in 1843.

Facilities at the site include four TV studios and two production studios, which will be used by students and industry. Birmingham City says the building offers the “largest university broadcast centre in the UK” and the “largest green-screen studio in the UK” – a type of studio used to film special effects scenes.

Chris O’Neil, executive dean of BIAD, said the university was “talking to one of the UK’s major TV channels to produce a national programme from the facility, with students working as technicians”.

The second phase of the development is scheduled to open in 2015, hosting all student support services as well as business, law, social science and English.

“The intention is that by 2017 we will have vacated Perry Barr in its entirety,” Professor Allan said.

From the upper floors of the Parkside Building, the location’s potential is clear. Across the road is the railway line that will be the future route of HS2, the new high-speed rail network. Trains will terminate at a new Curzon Street station, creating a gateway to the city just a short walk from the university.

Being in the city centre close to all this major regeneration “makes BCU’s offer much more attractive”, said Professor Allan, a former head of teaching and learning policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, who took over at Birmingham City in December 2012.

The university’s neighbours in the Eastside learning quarter will be Aston University (with which it tried to merge in 2003) and Birmingham Metropolitan College, another big provider of higher education.

And across the railway is the area of Digbeth, which Professor Allan described as Birmingham’s “creative and digital industry quarter” – and whose proximity the university considers to be a major asset.

The vice-chancellor said that he was confident about the university’s future in the emerging higher education market – given that its specialisms offer particular attractions to students – and said that the number of applications was growing.

“That enables us to be a bit more selective in terms of who we are accepting,” said Professor Allan, who is comfortable with, and indeed planning for, a small drop in student numbers.

Not everyone shares the vice-chancellor’s enthusiasm about relocating. Some people have opposed Birmingham City’s move, with disquiet even spawning one campaign group called “Give Perry Barr a Chance”. In 2012, Perry Barr’s Labour MP, Khalid Mahmood, said the university’s departure would be “an economic and social disaster” for the area.

Professor Allan said that the university intended to “make sure that the site we vacate is put to good development use”.

He argued that the move made sense because the focus of Birmingham’s cultural and creative industries is in the city centre. But Professor Allan also conceded that “of course there is a feeling of real sadness in departing Perry Barr”.

In numbers

£180m - the cost of Birmingham City University’s new campus development

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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