When the University of Glasgow released land for the construction of the city’s Western Infirmary in the 19th century, a clause was drawn up to allow the institution to reacquire the site if it was no longer needed for healthcare.
That was an astute move. Nearly 150 years on, the clause has been activated, allowing the university to claim the 14-acre site for a knockdown price and presenting a rare opportunity.
In coming years, once the hospital has relocated to the south of the city, the university will use the land to double the size of its main Gilmorehill campus.
And even though the land came at a discount, this is not a project that is being done on the cheap. Once the university’s plans to refurbish some existing buildings are taken into account, the total outlay is expected to hit £750 million.
While this is a substantial sum for the university, it is a major investment for the city, too – pumping into Glasgow’s West End the same amount of cash as went into the East End in preparation for last year’s Commonwealth Games.
The West End may not have the deprivation of the East End but, with the departure of the hospital and with the other main employer, the BBC, having left already, the university is likely to play an ever more vital community anchor role.
The university will have to borrow to fund the project, but it will also be able to draw on healthy reserves and budget surpluses.
The significance of the project for the wider city is not lost on Anton Muscatelli, principal of Glasgow and one of the UK’s leading economists.
“At a time when the level of capital spending in the UK economy has gone down markedly, the ability of universities to use their reserves and borrowing capacity to be able to make a difference is something that I think is important,” he said.
New research and teaching facilities will form the core of the expanded campus, allowing academics to vacate properties that were originally Victorian terraced houses and clearing the way for the demolition of some of the university’s less attractive 1960s premises.
The scheme should allow for more of the university’s colleges and schools to be housed together, ending their division into different departments and, it is hoped, fostering cross-disciplinary collaborations.
There is also likely to be more space for some of the key research areas in which Glasgow has made exciting progress in recent years, such as quantum technology, stratified medicine, big data and digital humanities.
In addition, the development will make it possible to accommodate more students, particularly from overseas.
In all this, the university is keen to ensure that the local community is not excluded. There will be facilities that residents can use, and public routes across the hospital site, which is now surrounded by a tall brick wall, will be opened up.
The university is also looking to enter into a collaboration to turn the nearby Kelvin Hall exhibition centre into an art museum, moving exhibits owned by its Hunterian Museum there and providing more space to display Glasgow’s cultural treasures, such as the tea room interiors designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Professor Muscatelli said that the opportunities afforded by the project were equal in significance to those gained by the university’s move to the Gilmorehill site in 1870.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to transform and prepare the university towards the future,” he said. “We have an opportunity with a relatively blank canvas to say, ‘what do we want to develop?’
“Our unique selling point – this ability to be research-intensive and one of the world’s leading universities but also being accessible in a socio-economic sense – is something that we want to continue. We want a balanced development, not just new research buildings, because it’s also very much about the student experience.”
The size and ambition of the project are on a par with similar ones being undertaken on campuses south of the border, where tuition fees are thought to have driven increased student expectations.
Such trends are having an impact in Scotland even though the country’s students pay no university tuition fees, Professor Muscatelli said.
He added: “We have a very different funding system, but our drive is that we want to compete for the best students and want to provide the best facilities.”
£750m – expected total cost of Gilmorehill campus refurbishment and expansion
University of Edinburgh
A species of giant marine reptile that prowled the seas around Scotland some 170 million years ago has been discovered by researchers at the University of Edinburgh. The dolphin-like predator, Dearcmhara shawcrossi, which grew up to 14ft (4.2m) in length, was not identified as a new species until fossil fragments discovered on the Isle of Skye in 1959 were reviewed recently by a team led by Edinburgh palaeontologist Steve Brusatte.
Liverpool John Moores University
Calls from orang-utans show key similarities with human spoken languages, offering a potential point of origin for speech evolution, research suggests. A study involving scientists from Liverpool John Moores University and researchers from the Pongo Foundation, published in Plos One, shows that orang-utans, and perhaps other great apes, can learn to produce new calls that display similarities with human consonants and vowels.
University of Nottingham
A new public lecture series analysing popular culture from an academic perspective has been announced. The Popular Culture Lecture Series launches next month at the University of Nottingham with the aim of exploring characters and themes from TV, books, films and comics. Speakers from across the university will examine topics such as vegan ethics in Doctor Who, zombie genomics and the creation of alien languages and the role of the translation robot C3PO in Star Wars.
University of Roehampton
A creative writing professor has won the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for 2014. David Harsent, who joined the University of Roehampton in September 2013 and chairs its Roehampton Poetry Centre, was awarded the £20,000 prize on 12 January for his collection Fire Songs. Novelist Helen Dunmore, chair of the judges, described Professor Harsent as “a poet for dark and dangerous days”, adding that his poetry “plumbs language and emotion with technical brilliance and prophetic power”.
University of Edinburgh
Researchers will be able to demonstrate how they do everything from making dinosaurs “walk” via virtual robotics to using Google Glass in the operating theatre, thanks to an Android app created for a project led by four UK institutions. The Software Sustainability Institute, based at the universities of Edinburgh, Southampton, Oxford and Manchester, has launched a mobile- and tablet-friendly version of its site, software.ac.uk. The institute was set up in 2010 to encourage scholars to disseminate their work more widely using new technology.
Norwich University of the Arts
A new master’s course in computer gaming that links with an apprenticeship scheme is to be launched in September by an English university. The MA in games at Norwich University of the Arts has been developed in concert with the industry skills body Creative Skillset as part of a scheme that will offer access to professional games studios. The course will offer full- and part-time places.
University of Essex
A research project into the mobile Chinese student population is being led by the University of Essex. The £979,000 Bright Futures project will, over three years, aim to determine which types of Chinese students take part in internal and external educational migration and how the experience shapes their aspirations. It is funded jointly by the Economic and Social Research Council, the German Research Foundation and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
Regent’s University London
Herman van Rompuy, former president of the European Council, has told a university conference that the rise in individual nations’ gross domestic product has occurred in tandem with European citizens’ “stagnating feeling of happiness”. Speaking at the International Partners’ Conference at Regent’s University London in what was his first public talk since leaving the European role, Mr van Rompuy said that modern societies and economies were too focused on money and self-interest and that “tackling the root causes of inequality means ensuring better education”.