What do we want from a University?

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:

“I 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 nation’s story”.

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 university’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.


  1. Stuart Fairney
    July 11, 2008

    First off, how many of the audience do you think had to go to wiki to see what "coruscate" meant (myself included)?

    You are quite right in the sense this 'half-way house' design reflecting local vernacular to a degree is an utterly hopeless concept, I can't stand it and always brief architects not to do this. Some smaller sites really do need to fit in to the surroundings, others, given sufficient mass and setting, can stand alone.

  2. Cliff
    July 11, 2008

    You make some good points John.
    I like most of the ideas the university are suggesting and more often than not, as is the case in industry, much of the useful discussion and debate happens outside of the formal sessions.

    One thing I would like to see is the removal of tuition fees, this would allow students to get on with their studies instead of having to take jobs to fund themselves, it would also allow students not to start out in life with huge debts…..Hardly a good way to start adult life is it?

    I wonder if a university education has been devalued due to the large number of polytechnics that have been give university status and offer degrees, in my opinion, of little value.

    One thing that does worry me, not about universities but the education system in general, is the fact that most of the red brick universities no longer accept A Levels as an indication of ability and now insist on would be students sitting an entrance exam. I wonder what that says about the value of our so called gold star standard examinations?

  3. Freeborn John
    July 11, 2008

    Universities should indeed be the place where serendipity flowers because it is not realistic to expect it to happen anywhere else. Even the most innovative company has bills to pay, short-term goals to achieve, processes to follow, etc. which focus (and restrict) the mind on more mundane matters.

    All cities in southern England inevitably live in the cultural shadow of London. A local university can be an important source of vitality to light up these shadows. As someone who works in the outskirts of Reading (close to the Windmill) I feel that the University is uniquely positioned to light up the life of the city but has sub critical mass. The temporary influx of vitality that occurs during say the Reading Rock Festival is palpable, serving only to highlight by contrast that the general ambience of the place is primarily commercial and corporate. Of course the commercial and corporate life of a city is important too, but these interests (of which I am part) would also benefit from a cultural scene energised by the University. When driving to Reading yesterday I heard a feature on the radio about Austin in Texas and how the vitality of its cultural scene (centered on its Universities) had attracted an influx of companies looking for creative minds. My company had a plan some time ago to relocate a large number of staff from the Heathrow area to Reading, but this clearly will never be fulfilled now. There are numerous “logical” reasons for this, but a powerful undeclared reason is simply resistance from staff who feel that Reading is a bit of a backwater. Of course Austin does not suffer from close proximity to alternative cultural centres in the way that Reading does, but I cannot help but feel that the University is the one facility which Reading has that could (over time) grow its appeal beyond the mere convenience of its transport links.

  4. mikestallard
    July 11, 2008

    I am currently doing a little part-time TEFL teaching. the other teacher is a student at de Montfort University where she is reading TEFL.
    She is a good teacher, in her twenties.
    This week-end she is working to pay off her debt. She has Sunday morning off for Charity work. Otherwise, Monday through to Friday, after driving for over an hour each way, she teaches French children English and supervises them all day. She also has a week-end job. she rubs her eyes a lot and says she has trouble sleeping at 3 a.m.
    She works, she tells me, during the term too. She is deeply in debt and wants, when qualified, to travel the world. I do not think she is either interested or that she has time for interesting hobbies and pursuits after hours.
    It is so different from my own (distant) time at Cambridge where we were always discussing things we couldn't understand and so on. We got fed richly. We got a good grant to live off. We had dignity and superb teaching one to one from a world authority. We also got excellent, stimulating lecturers. We lived in a mediaeval setting and ate there too. Often we made life-long friends.

  5. Deborah
    July 13, 2008

    In the 80s and 90s multi-nationals employed British workers with A levels on the same grade as American graduates. An American needed a masters to match a British degree. Moreover, in Britain anyone bright enough – rich or poor – could benefit from a University education without having to worry about living costs or college fees. I felt very proud of our education system which worked so well.

    The pursuit of prizes-for-all has destroyed the relative advantage we enjoyed and the loss of grants followed by the introduction of tuition fees means financial concerns now deter many bright students – others are disadvantaged by having to work during term-time to support themselves and all but the richest are left worrying about debt.

    Do away with the 50% target for university entry and bring back academic excellence, abolish tuition fees and reinstate a grant system so that the best and brightest of our youth can flourish again. Britain will benefit.

Comments are closed.