Can universities help save the UK high street?

As online shopping and pandemic leave swathe of retail units vacant, universities are urged to seize chance for space and civic roles

June 1, 2021
 Independent stores remain closed along Camden High Street as a metaphor for retail vacancies growing universities are being urged to seize spaces for civic roles
Source: Getty

With UK town and city centres pitched into existential crisis by the rise of online shopping and now the pandemic, could universities be among the saviours?

There are some who think that the University of Gloucestershire’s purchase of a former department store in Gloucester city centre, to “create dual-use facilities for the community and the university”, could offer a national model. Such moves are seen as having the potential not just to breathe new life into high streets, but also to strengthen universities’ appeal to adult learners and bolster their civic missions – at a time when universities face their own existential questions about their ability to connect with the public.

In Gloucester, the collapse of national retail chain Debenhams left questions over the future of its “much-loved” five-storey art deco building in the city centre, with concern that it might be converted into flats or demolished, said Matthew Andrews, university secretary and registrar.

THE Campus resource: Creating internship opportunities for students online

“The ability to combine our need for space with the city centre’s need for new life and regeneration just seemed far too good to miss,” he said. 

The building will give the “small mid-sized” university, dispersed across four existing campuses outside the centres of Gloucester and Cheltenham, the physical “visibility…in the local community” that it currently lacks, said Dr Andrews.

The literal shop window building “needs to be accessible, needs to be permeable for the general population, not just for people who are studying or working there”, he continued.

There are at the moment “lots of negative portrayals of universities in the media and from politicians”, so it is crucial to combat that by ensuring “that local communities see real value in having a university in their locality”, Dr Andrews said. “This is one of the ways we can do that.”

The combination of the rise of online shopping and the pandemic’s creation of more vacant high street spaces – about 12.6 per cent of all retail units are empty – that are cheaper than before meant there were “new opportunities for universities looking for more space in the centre of their home town or city”, says a report on openings for higher education emerging from the Covid crisis published in May by the real estate company Savills.

Mat Oakley, head of European commercial research at Savills and an author of that report, said he had recently worked with a university that had considered buying a south London shopping centre and converting it into a new campus, with the university being “keen on linking it [the new campus] to a regeneration-type story”.

“But just the sheer cost of converting it meant it probably would have made more sense to buy it, demolish it and rebuild a campus on the space,” he said.

“More interesting” for universities than vacant shopping centres or department stores with high conversion costs might be “a more standard shop on a more standard high street”, Mr Oakley suggested.

If universities could use “an accessible shop on a high street that’s converted into an adult learning centre”, that could appeal to mature students seeking to retrain, who could “pop in after their working hours” to a hub that “doesn’t involve a long journey and is kind of on the way home”, he argued.

“We may well see some HE-FE type providers looking at these spaces,” he added.

Richard Calvert, deputy vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University and strategic lead for the Civic University Network, stressed the importance of “engaging with people who see universities as remote places…Our physical spaces – where they are and how they operate – are a really important part of that.”

But it was “not enough simply to have buildings in city centres – what’s critical is how they are set up in a way that not just increases visibility but increases access”, he explained, adding that there were also important questions about how a university could “have a profile in areas where it doesn’t necessarily have a building”.

Precisely how Gloucestershire will use the former Debenhams building is still to be determined, but it will host its health courses and “we’ve got some exciting ideas about actual public health provision through the building that might place some of our arts expertise with some of our health expertise”, said Dr Andrews.

“The local response has been hugely positive,” he continued, with enthusiastic support from the local MP and city council, and the university “approached by so many partners who now want to work with us”, including media organisations, businesses seeking office space and outreach organisations wanting to offer events.

Dr Andrews saw potential for a trend for similar moves to emerge given that the falling cost of city centre space has created “a real moment for higher education”, plus the fact that universities need to invest in their estates “and this is a way of making sure that investment serves the needs not just of the university, but of the community more broadly”.


Print headline: Campuses breathe life into high street

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Reader's comments (4)

Sounds like the ideal venue for a Cafe Scientifique with research findings being disseminated direct to the public.
The concept of a high street adult learning centre, including use for HE and apprenticeship, has already been implemented by Loughborough College.
But surely the success of the working from home model will mean a lot of universities will already have more space on campus than they know what to do with. If a significant proprtion of Professional Services staff continue to work remotely as a permanent arrangement ( and there does seem to be a significant desire for this to happen) offices could be repurposed as teaching / meeting spaces, meaning there would be no need to look at the purchase or leasing of any High Street buildings. It would also seem to be foolish to extend any capital building or acquisition programmes given the financial uncertainty currently impacting the sector.
Our retail is rapidly becoming both the cause and the effect of a major socio-economic divide in the UK. Suburban small shops, rural small shops, are already being converted to residential as online and OOT centres boom. High streets will shrink and impoverish as peripheral bits of these become low-status residential too. The centres will become harder to access by car, and percieved as more dangerous too, and the wealthy will increasingly shop virtually or at the very edge of town in retail parks; the poor, car-less, will find, with curtailed public trsansport beyond urban borders, they will spend most of their lives in town. And the 2 'tribes', rich and poor, will barely mix. So where does this HE/FE initiative for High Streets come in? Hopefully it will not simply provide vocational training for lower/middle wage jobs, that would reinforce this social divide. Ideally it will be a socio-educaional route upwards and out of the lower, lower middle, classes.