With several new higher education development projects in the pipeline in the UK, it has been the Dyson Institute – backed by the billionaire inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner James Dyson – and Hereford’s planned engineering university that have hoovered up most of the national media attention.
But the University of Northampton’s new £330 million campus on the banks of the River Nene is arguably far more adventurous than anything else on the drawing board.
Due to open in autumn 2018, the Waterside campus was recently described as “the UK’s most exciting higher education project” by Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, not simply because of the hefty price tag of the university’s new facilities. Curiosity has also been piqued by some of the controversial new working practices set to be introduced at the new site: for instance, staff will no longer have offices or even their own desks, having to hot-desk and use lockers to store their personal effects.
“A lot of [the staff] don’t like it, but this is how we’ll be running the university,” said Nick Petford, Northampton’s vice-chancellor, who is among those already hot-desking. “I’m in the same office as the chief executive officer and dean of student experience and it works much better as we actually speak to each other.”
Academic staff who also work in industry are particularly unfazed by the move to open-plan offices as they are “used to these conditions”, he added.
The change is in part necessitated by the fact that the university will reduce its real-estate footprint by about 40 per cent when it consolidates its two campuses into a single site. University offices are notoriously underused, with institutions running up substantial bills heating them.
“Why would we build all that space if we are not going to use it? We are downsizing,” Professor Petford said.
The university is also introducing a new teaching method, titled “active blended learning”, where students will make greater use of digital learning resources before coming to class, said Professor Petford. Studies from the US indicate that student success rates are much higher when this online-offline hybrid approach is used, with face-to-face teaching remaining central to the process, he said.
“This is absolutely not the Open University by another name as our students will not pay £9,000 a year for that,” he said.
However, despite insisting that Northampton had to embrace digital learning in its curriculum, the institution faced a “risk [in] selling a brand new model” of teaching not fully understood by students, he admitted.
Doubts continue to linger over the huge financial cost of the campus, which will house 14,000 students and 2,000 staff. The project is funded by nearly £300 million of borrowing and, last week, BBC Radio Northampton quoted several worried employees, with one stating that the £10 million a year loan repayment for the new campus would be “financial suicide”. With overall domestic student numbers set to decline until 2022 and overseas numbers under threat from tougher student visa requirements, is the project too risky?
With “incredibly low” borrowing costs, Professor Petford said that he believed all the risks of the project have been properly hedged.
Falling international student numbers “was a worry faced by all institutions, but this project doesn’t rely on any increase in numbers”, he said. “We have not based our finance on growing student numbers or international income – getting any more [of either] will be a surplus,” he said.