Tower of power grows as a pillar of Glasgow’s community

Local residents won’t be forgotten amid expansion to boost student experience and strategic research areas, says Anton Muscatelli

January 22, 2015

Source: Alamy

Wonderland: exhibits from the Hunterian Museum will be displayed in nearby Kelvin Hall

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.”

In numbers

£750m – expected total cost of Gilmorehill campus refurbishment and expansion

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