I went to visit the University of Reading yesterday to see and hear their presentation on the development plans for new student facilities for the years ahead. It made me ask myself: what is a university for? How can we improve the student experience, to broaden it into a deeper educational experience?
In 1994 I asked these questions of the universities in Wales when meeting their Vice Chancellors. I concluded my speech by saying:
â€œI want the university to coruscate enlightenment, to put into the intellectual firmament a constellation of talents, ideas and educated people. I do not want the universities to be the supplicants, the tatterdemalions of the educational world, wearing themselves out by arguments over money and purpose. Universities are not just part of the process of modernising (the UK) and raising the standards of the workforce. They are not just cogs in a productive machine, required to turn a little faster and for more people. They should keep many flames alive to the spirit of enquiry, the tradition of tolerance and the pursuit of excellence.
” Let serendipity thrive. Let the universities turn their minds to the big issues of our generation. Let them rebuild their doors and widen their horizons. It would be good to welcome them back to a central place in our nationâ€™s storyâ€.
Today I still hold such a view. A university should, as Disraeli said, be a place of light, of liberty, of learning.
At Reading I was confronted by the mundane but central issue of how do and how should students live? Should they be offered campus residences rather than having to go out to rented accommodation in the town? If they stay on campus, could there be lively debate and cultural enterprise in the evenings, so the university stays alive long after the classes have ended and the lecturers have returned to their suburban villas? Does a modern student really want to be spending time slaving in a kitchen over a hot microwave with a tin opener? Is the limit of the student horizon a few pints of beer or an evening watching soaps on the TV?
I strongly support the Reading wish to have more students living on campus. The University is also going to provide more restaurants, cafes and “grazing places” so students can take advantage of prepared food and meals, and enjoy each other’s company. Part of the “university experience” should be the exposure to the different views and approaches of fellow students – something which an approximation to dining in hall with random seating based on the time you turn up achieves naturally.
A big part of student life is what young people do when they are not studying, when away from home for the first time in their lives. In good universities there is a student hunger to try out the worlds of drama, music, debate, learning, sport and so many others through the work of clubs, societies and evening events. In a dull university students return to digs or flats away from the actron after compulsory classes have ended in the afternoon, to be locked into conventional domesticity alone or with contact with just a few student friends.
I welcome Reading’s wish to enrich and enlarge the student experience by providing the architectural backdrop to a particpating campus that can extend and stretch students in the evenings, as well as during the day.
My specific local comments in response to the consultation are twofold. Firstly, there must be a rule that there should be enough car parking places on campus for all students and faculty allowed to bring cars, as the local roads cannot take displaced university vehicles for long term parking.
Secondly, the “work in progress” of the architects has left the new outlines of the accomodation blocks with too great a mass and the wrong surface treatments. The proposals are halfway between modern building and traditional facades to match the local vernacular. The half way house will suit few. As the campus buildings look inwards and are well screened from the local housing by tree belts. The architect could use modern finishes. If the aim is to mirror the brick and tile local surroundings, then it has to look as if they are brick and tile structures. Do they need to be concrete pile driven, with all the extra weight that entails?
I was pleased to hear the new buildings will be more eco friendly, capturing energy from the sun. It is a good opportunity to be innovative in water handling, waste management, insulation and power generation.
The universityâ€™s plans are to allow every first year student a residential place on campus. That seems to me to be a good first step. The campus would include a number of different cafes and restaurants, so the student could be spared the visit to the communal kitchen close to his or her room.
I wish the university well, and was delighted to hear it can raise the necessary mortgage even in current conditions.