Universities build golden dreams at Olympic Park

An East London innovation and education quarter is arising with the help of several institutions

March 27, 2014

Source: Getty

Building a legacy: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the areas around it are seen as prime locations for institutions and entrepreneurs

As the UK watched Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford storm to gold on the “Super Saturday” of the 2012 London Olympics few will have been wondering what would happen to Olympic Park once the Games ended.

But the race to transform the site into a vibrant new quarter of London is now well under way, with innovation and higher education taking centre stage thanks to several universities and their belief in its future potential.

Two of these are the University of East London and Birkbeck, University of London, which teamed up to open a new joint campus just outside Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park last year.

Loughborough University is another eager for a slice of the action. It is set to open a new postgraduate campus in what was the Olympic Park’s broadcasting centre by the end of 2015.

And after a false start, which involved abandoning a controversial plan to redevelop an East London housing estate, University College London is drawing up plans for a base at Olympic Park. Its sights are set on the park’s Marshgate Wharf area to the south of the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower.

Michael Arthur, UCL’s provost, said the plans had “moved on a lot since our initial thinking”. The 50,000 sq m site will incorporate industrial and other higher education partners and could open in 2018, he said.

The subject areas being considered for the site at this stage are design and heritage, experimental engineering and an open innovation space called “UCL Future Now”, which will focus on the interactions between people and technology. The plans also include accommodation, a space for early career researchers and alumni entrepreneurs, and the development of a “museum of the future” in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“Ideas are popping up all the time,” Professor Arthur said, and a steering group is sifting through them all. “As you can imagine, there is some nervousness because these are the ideas now for something in five years’ time…This will be a continuously evolving process.”

The current proposal envisages 1,100 students on site, most of them postgraduates, along with at least 100 staff – although the employee headcount could rise if the site pulled in significant research funding, Professor Arthur said.

Professor Arthur is not anxious about opening a postgraduate institution when there are widespread concerns that the numbers studying at this level are dwindling. Postgraduate numbers are “going up quite significantly” at UCL, he said, and the international market is “growing exponentially”.

‘Compelling’ proposition

Loughborough’s plans for Olympic Park are more advanced than UCL’s. The university has signed a long lease with the landlord of what was the broadcasting centre and has secured planning permission to develop the site.

Mike Caine, dean of Loughborough University in London, said that the institution was hiring key staff in leadership, business development, marketing and academia.

He said that Loughborough had been attracted to Stratford in particular by the vision of the company behind the development – Here East, formerly iCITY – which aims to provide business incubation space for technology start-ups as well as host big companies including BT Sport and the data centre operator Infinity SDC.

This represented a “compelling mix” and a “tremendous opportunity”, Professor Caine said. “We particularly liked the idea that we would be able to influence and shape that ecosystem in a way that would be much more difficult if we were coming into an existing area of London.”

The London campus will expand Loughborough’s postgraduate offering, with courses in media, creative industries, design, sport business and virtual engineering. “In particular we have a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship…We are looking at digital technology as a big growth area.”

By forming partnerships with industry, Loughborough hopes to appeal to students who have an eye on the employment market. “Students who are struggling…to find graduate-level jobs are choosing to invest in further study,” he explained.

It is hoped that in its first year, the London Loughborough campus will attract about 250 students, Professor Caine said, before growing over time to reach about 1,000 full-time students and 100 staff. About two-thirds of these staff are expected to be academic; the rest would be professional services and support staff.

Local branch for local people

Such is the allure of Stratford that even universities with an established presence in the area are developing new offerings. UEL, which has been a fixture in Stratford since becoming a university in 1992, opened a new campus in 2013 in partnership with Birkbeck.

The building, known as University Square Stratford, sits to the east of Olympic Park. During the day it is used for teaching by UEL, and in the evenings it is used by Birkbeck.

Tricia King, pro vice-master for student experience and director of external relations at Birkbeck, called University Square Stratford a “pioneering” example of institutional collaboration.

The two institutions do more than share a building. They work together on course development to increase student choice and they make sure that provision is complementary, she said. A joint information and guidance team offers student education and career advice, she added.

For Birkbeck, the move to Stratford was about boosting participation in higher education in East London. “Research shows that students prefer to study close to where they live or work…It was essential that there was a local campus to cater for the needs of potential students for whom travel to and from central London, or elsewhere, to study was not an option,” Ms King said.

The Stratford outpost allows the institution to deliver evening courses in the heart of “hard to reach” communities, she added. They are accessible to people of Stratford and the borough of Newham, which have some of the lowest participation levels in the capital, and to those from other boroughs such as Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham.

Public transport was a key factor in finding a suitable location for Birkbeck’s move east, Ms King explained. “Being able to get to and from class easily, especially in the evenings, is important for students.”

Working with UEL was “essential”, she added, because Birkbeck “was keen to ensure that its work in East London would be complementary to existing provision”.

John Joughin, UEL’s vice-chancellor, said Birkbeck was a “natural fit” as a strategic partner because both institutions “aim to widen access and encourage progression into higher education for non-traditional students”.

But with all these universities vying for students in the East End, is there not a risk that Stratford will become crowded with higher education rivals fighting over territory? Professor Caine thinks not: “The idea that more is a bad thing is certainly not the sense that I get.”

Professor Arthur added: “You will see a lot more partnership work there rather than an individual institution owning everything.”


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