Leicester reaches for stars as new build totals £1bn

Widening-participation agenda will sit alongside elite ambitions, pledges v-c. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 20, 2008

Described as one of the biggest building programmes ever undertaken by a higher education institution, the University of Leicester has announced an additional £786 million for its "campus plan" as part of a bold ambition to move into the top 10 of British universities.

And despite being in the midst of a global financial crisis, Leicester (Times Higher Education's 2008 University of the Year) is pressing ahead with its plans.

The investment builds on a 20-year campus development plan announced by the university in 2002, which has already seen completion of a new £32 million library, a £25 million hall of residence and a £23 million biomedical building. The new money will bring the university's total investment over the 20-year span of the project to £1 billion. The money comes from Leicester's own resources, fundraising, partnerships and bank loans.

Vice-chancellor Bob Burgess insisted that the plans were sound despite the global economic downturn, and stressed that it was important to keep developing during a recession.

"We have now put in place a plan - £1 billion over 20 years - which we think is an ambitious target, but an appropriate target for the kind of university that we are," he said.

Leicester hopes that the expansion will see student numbers increase from 10,000 to 15,000 by 2020, building on a 17 per cent increase in applications from 2007 to 2008.

Proposed works include the redevelopment of the student union building at the centre of the campus, new public spaces, including a "platform for arts activities", more laboratory space for students, an extension to the physics building and investments in public art and social facilities. The campus is expected to become half as big again as its present size.

The physical development is intended to "match academic development in terms of research and teaching", said Professor Burgess.

He said the university had seen a rise in its position in the league tables from 46 in 1998 to 12 today, which had been achieved without compromise to its widening-participation agenda. It puts the University of Leicester in a "unique position", Professor Burgess explained: "(as) an elite university committed to widening access".

He continued, "Leicester has done well in the league tables; it has done well consistently over the whole period that the National Student Survey has been organised. It has won the University of the Year title ... All of this points towards Leicester now making it clear that it has got a unique position and should start to set its ambition to join those universities in the top 10."

As part of its ambitions to join the elite institutions, the university has toughened its entry requirements in some departments: where previously Bs at A level were enough to win a place, some now require As.

Professor Burgess said raising entry standards was "quite natural". He said, "I think that given the numbers of applicants that we have, then we are invariably needing to become more selective."

He stressed, however, that this was being done while simultaneously "remaining true" to the widening-participation agenda.

"It means we need to (continue to) take contextual information into account, be open to continuing to take a proportion of mature students, and engage in work which will assist those students who have not traditionally come from families who have engaged in higher education," he said.

Professor Burgess said development of a welcoming "ethos", where students felt that the institution would be appropriate for them, will be "very important" in widening participation.

To that end, he added, the new campus expansion is being designed to create a "sense of place" that both students and staff find welcoming and, more importantly, memorable.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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