Campus close-up: University of Warwick

As the Coventry campus with global reach turns 50, it looks to alliances without forgetting its roots

August 28, 2014

Source: Alamy

Towering ambition: Warwick Business School is to open a branch at the Shard

As the University of Warwick prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of its first undergraduate admissions next year, the spread of its brand is clear. There is the recently announced news that Warwick Business School will open a site at the Shard in central London; Warwick’s involvement in the Center for Urban Science and Progress in New York; and its “alliance” with Australia’s Monash University.

“Going into the 50th just creates a moment of reflection to say, ‘how have we got here and how do we use what we’ve got to take that forward?’ ” said Ken Sloan, Warwick’s registrar and chief operating officer.

Warwick can be found all over the world, but not in Warwick itself, of course. The Coventry-based university’s establishment was partly funded by the councils of both Coventry and Warwickshire. Its name was an attempt to offer something to the county, given that the city was expected to reap most of the economic benefits from the university.

Is there a tension between the high-performing research university with global reach and an elite student intake, and the local role with which Warwick set out in the 1960s?

“It only becomes a tension if you make it a tension,” said Mr Sloan, highlighting the university’s regional role. He described Warwick as “the first Russell Group university to introduce a 2+2 programme with the local further education colleges where you can study for two years there and then come here”.

Christina Hughes, pro vice-chancellor (teaching and learning), pointed to other widening participation projects. These include a scheme led by the university’s innovation centre WMG and department of computer science that works with disabled students at a Coventry further education college.

The students at Hereward College design and produce objects (using 3D printers) that will help them in their day-to-day lives – such as the student unable to tap out text messages on a mobile phone with their fingers who created a mouthguard to hold a stylus. The scheme has the benefit of “raising participation in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects”, added Professor Hughes.

The university bills the forthcoming National Automotive Innovation Centre – scheduled for completion in 2016 – as a development that will bring new car industry jobs to Coventry, once the UK’s motor city.

Throughout its history, Warwick’s entrepreneurial approach has provoked admiration but also criticism. This year saw the reissue of Warwick University Ltd, originally published in 1970 and edited by historian E. P. Thompson, then at Warwick. The book says that local industry exerted a powerful influence over the university in its early years, and claims that left-wing students were blacklisted. Its re-publication has coincided with another controversy that has brought Warwick fresh criticism: the suspension of Thomas Docherty, a professor of English and comparative literature charged with undermining his head of department.

On entrepreneurialism, Mr Sloan paraphrases the view expressed by the university’s chancellor, Sir Richard Lambert, former director general of the Confederation of British Industry, at a recent event: “At an early stage of this institution, it was things like having a business school, things like having Warwick Manufacturing Group which have enabled the university not only to be confident overall, but which have created the environment in which other disciplines have been able to thrive.”

An integral feature in the university’s future will be the “strategic partnership” it has with Monash. Andrew Coats, academic vice-president for the Monash Warwick Alliance, said the project offers “a way of internationalisation that is quite different”.

It has led to joint appointments like Sebastien Perrier, professor of chemistry, who says his research in applying nanotechnology to biomedical science has already benefited from greater access to grants and links with industry.

Trevor McCrisken, associate professor in US politics and international studies at Warwick, highlights the pilot double MA in journalism, politics and international studies that has been developed between the two universities, allowing students to study in the UK and Australia.

And Hannah Sugrue, a final-year engineering undergraduate, was part of the first student project to benefit from the alliance in her role as a member of Warwick’s Formula Student racing team. The Warwick students won funding for an exchange programme – a visit to Melbourne allowing them to understand their car’s aerodynamics better thanks to use of Monash’s full-scale wind tunnel.

Warwick is clearly gearing up for a global race in its next 50 years, after rapid acceleration in its first 50. The rest of the higher education sector will be watching its performance with keen interest.

In numbers

2016 - the year that the National Automotive Innovation Centre is scheduled for completion

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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