UCL ploughing on with record investment programme despite uncertainty.
Just after 10am on Monday, UCL’s much-anticipated new student centre was unveiled by UCL Estates on Gordon Street. Vice Provost Anthony Smith led a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the centre’s glass entranceway, before students piled in to inspect the new facility.
The culmination of five years of planning and construction, the £67.4 million student centre offers 1,004 new study spaces over eight floors, along with a ‘quiet contemplation room’ and a newly-consolidated student support centre.
Described by Smith as ‘the most sustainable building in higher education’ as well as ‘one of the most sustainable buildings in the UK’, the centre features 409 square metres of solar panels on its roof, a ground-source heating system, and an innovative automatic window system that will ventilate workspaces without the need for air conditioning.
The building contains the only artwork currently on display to the public by sculptor Rachel Whiteread, 1993 Turner Prize winner, and UCL Slade School of Art alumna.
The student centre is the latest product of the university’s long-term ‘Transforming UCL’ programme of construction, which over the past eighteen months has seen the completion of the Bloomsbury Theatre’s £20 million refurbishment and the opening of the Wilkins Terrace behind the main quadrangle. UCL East, the flagship £483m new campus in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is due to start construction this year.
UCL’s investment in new facilities comes at a time of huge capital investment programmes across UK universities. Since the 2012 introduction of £9,000 tuition fees and the 2015 removal of the student numbers cap, universities have adopted strategies of expansion in order to increase their overall income.
With greater student numbers comes a need for improved facilities. UCL’s own student body has risen to 42,000 from 17,000 in little over a decade, and the current £1.25 billion programme of investment represents an attempt to deal with the impact that such changes have had.
Such rapid growth has not been without controversy. In February 2018, UCL academics voted overwhelmingly to back a motion of no confidence in how the university is run, citing worries about falling standards as a result of Chair of UCL council DeAnne Julius and provost Michael Arthur’s management strategy.
More recently, commentators have highlighted growing uncertainty that is generally facing UK higher education. Ministers are said to be proposing a possible cut to annual tuition fees of £6,500, while doubts remain over whether universities can sustain EU student numbers following Brexit. There are also growing fears about levels of competition and debt in an ever more saturated university marketplace. UCL neighbour and fellow University of London constituent SOAS is currently facing a 40% drop in its undergraduate intake, and an annual operating deficit of £7 million.
UCL management maintains that expansion and redevelopment of facilities is the best way to deal with these challenges. Michael Arthur defended the university’s growth to the Financial Times last year, arguing that ‘the greatest academic freedom comes from the greatest resource envelope’. UCL needs to be big, shiny and well-resourced to continue to attract record numbers of fee-paying students, and then to be able to house them once they are there. Only then, according to Arthur, can its status as a world leading institution be assured.
The new student centre, with its striking concrete, glass aesthetic and stated aim of helping to ‘boost the profile of one of the world’s greatest universities,’ represents a bold bet on the continued success of this strategy in the years to come.