Standing out as an institution is hard when you are surrounded by some of London’s most imposing skyscrapers.
So London South Bank University, situated not far from the Shard and other towering office blocks just south of the Thames, is stepping up its efforts to become more visible – both to potential students and local businesses.
Splitting the university’s four faculties into seven new academic schools is one way that London South Bank can raise its profile, believes vice-chancellor David Phoenix, who took charge in January after 21 years at the University of Central Lancashire, of which five were as deputy vice-chancellor.
Having smaller schools will enable each one to build its own ethos and brand, which should help to attract not just potential students but businesses who may want to work with the university, said Professor Phoenix.
“Creating that identity will help schools to be identified in the outside world,” he insisted.
The new school structure, due to be introduced this autumn, runs contrary to the current vogue for merging academic schools to form large multi-subject faculties that some believe facilitate interdisciplinary research.
However, Professor Phoenix believes that model does not suit the business-orientated nature of London South Bank, one of Britain’s largest universities with about 23,000 students. “Large faculties are good for managing large volumes of students, but they don’t help to create an identity,” he said.
Encouraging more cooperation with business is central to Professor Phoenix’s vision for the university and he is keen to get more students working in industry as part of their studies.
“I am not interested in having students in large lecture theatres – I want them learning through practical lessons, through work placements and by peer group support,” he said. “With students paying £9,000 a year, it’s not just the knowledge they acquire which is important, but what they do with that knowledge and how they develop their skills,” he added, saying that he wants more students working on “live projects” in industry during their courses.
He is also keen for staff to establish stronger links with industry, an area where London South Bank has excelled, he said.
“For many years, this university was a national leader in terms of knowledge transfer and applying our work to industry – it was a top 50 university in terms of knowledge transfer income,” he said.
That work is still thriving in some areas, with start-ups and other small businesses in its Clarence Centre and Technopark business incubation units boasting an annual turnover of about £37 million.
Professor Phoenix also hopes to create more of a campus feel at the university by knitting together its various buildings with more green spaces after substantial investment in the estate.
Meanwhile, the institution has invested about £14 million to upgrade its digital facilities, with a new cloud infrastructure set to improve the use of technology in learning, as well as cope with 30,000 connected devices.
With its lowly position in most university league tables, Professor Phoenix admitted that London South Bank faces considerable competition for students, particularly with the growth of private providers in the capital.
“In terms of competition, it’s only just started,” he warned.
“But I don’t think our strengths are appropriately reflected in these league tables – there is some really fantastic stuff happening here, in the work of staff and students, and maybe we haven’t spent enough time publicising it,” he said.
Marketing the university may start to become easier thanks to a £3 billion regeneration of Elephant and Castle that is seeking to turn the rundown South London junction into a sought-after destination for well-heeled professionals.
“In five years’ time, it will be a very different locale – the population here is already changing rapidly,” said Professor Phoenix.
The so-called “gentrification” of the area will also pose challenges to the university, which has recruited strongly from the ethnically diverse schools in nearby deprived neighbourhoods, he added.
“But it’s a great time to be in the higher education sector – there are so many opportunities and those universities that provide value for their students can succeed,” he said.
£14m - the sum that the university has invested to upgrade its digital facilities
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