If you claim to have the “freshest university campus in Britain”, you had better have some pretty strong evidence to back it up.
However, if you proffer classrooms inside the biomes of the Eden Project, few would argue to the contrary.
Sir Tim Smit, Eden’s co-founder, made the claim during an announcement relaying that the Eden Project would be opening its doors to university students this autumn.
In partnership with the Cornwall College Group, the Eden Project will house undergraduates on horticulture, garden and landscape design, event management, performance, storytelling and interpretation programmes. Plymouth University will validate the degrees.
“We started with our partners at Cornwall College and the courses fitted in well with Plymouth,” said David Harland, executive director of the Eden Project. “We’ve got quite well-publicised partnerships with the University of Exeter and Falmouth University and we also have MSc students from Anglia Ruskin University, but this is taking us into a new place and Plymouth fits the bill [as it’s] South West-focused.”
Eden’s famous “biomes” recreate varying climatic conditions, such as a Mediterranean environment, giving students the opportunity to study plants and ecosystems from around the world.
“We got into a dialogue originally about the state of horticulture in the nation,” Mr Harland said. “There’s a view that it has become either very specialist or a profession that you wouldn’t necessarily want to recommend to your children, because [parents assume that they are] going to end up digging in a ditch in the rain.
“We wanted to change that perception, because if there is an issue that’s going to come up in the 21st and 22nd centuries, it’s going to be about feeding the world. Plants are going to play a very big role in that.”
He added that the new programmes offered a “chance for students to engage with real-life activities” as opposed to being taught a “[solely] theoretical module”.
Miriam Venner, director for cultural and visitor economy at Cornwall College and responsible for events management and the performing arts programmes at the Eden Project, agreed.
“Working alongside [professionals] at the same time as having [the] academic rigour of the university and our teaching staff is the perfect combination,” she said. “What we try and do with all our higher education courses is to give [students] that real experience rather than just a simulation. That gears them up far better for employment.”
Ms Venner added that after a successful year of putting apprentices into the Eden Project, a number of whom she was responsible for, higher education was the “next logical step”. Despite the Eden Project’s national draw, the possibilities afforded to Cornish students made the collaboration even more important. The Eden Project has contributed more than £1 billion to the local economy since opening in 2001, and Ms Venner has always seen its academic potential.
“My main involvement has been with events, such as the Eden Sessions (music concerts), conferences [and] weddings,” she said. “I saw it [the Eden Project] as an instant fit for the range and breadth of activities that our students need to engage in. For them to learn all aspects [of their subject area] they need to work in all sorts of different contexts.”
Mr Harland said that getting to the current position had not been an easy journey, and that the process took a lot of “intellectual rigour and energy”, adding that it’s not just about having “physical facilities”.
However, that does not detract from the fact that the Eden Project’s learning spaces are unique, he said. “I’m not a horticulturist, but I [go through] at least three, four, five temperate zones in one day. There are almost no places in the world [where] you can do that, in that way,” he said. “We have the largest rainforest in captivity, the world’s largest collection of economic plants. It’s a different type of horticulture from many other institutions.”
Although the partners did not want to get ahead of themselves, they have plans to develop the courses and grow student numbers. The programmes have attracted 65 students so far and there are hopes that this will stretch to more than 70 over the first year.
“We’ve got a raft of areas [that] we could look at, [including] land reclamation, remediation and regeneration; conservation and sustainability,” said Mr Harland.
“Horticulture is in a state and the world needs horticulture right now to make sure that we can grow the population to 9 billion. Imagining those students going forth and developing their careers further…there isn’t [anything] much better for us as a social enterprise than giving back to society.”
9 billion: the global population is expected to exceed this figure by 2050, according to UN estimates
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