Tag: university

Alternative education

In August last year, I suggested an alternative to building a new university in Swindon.

What I could see happening, and would favour, is one of the colleges in Swindon expanding the undergraduate courses which it offers until, after many years, it is in a position to claim university status and offer its own degrees rather than those of other universities. I think that would also have the benefit of producing something more vocational appropriate for the sort of town Swindon is… focused on the town’s industrial base, rather than a more traditional, academic university that we might end up with as a branch of some other town’s university. That model is the one by which most current universities were created (from college, to university college or polytechnic, then to independent university), but is one that takes many decades.

Mr Buckland said he was ‘taken with’ the suggestion. Mr Tomlinson seemed supportive too. Now that the money has vanished for the University of the West England’s Swindon plans — if it was ever really there — it seems that Swindon Borough Council might be coming round to my and others’ way of thinking, albeit reluctantly. Whilst Mr Young still expresses aspirations for a new university, that he is prepared to explore more homegrown alternatives is a welcome departure from the legacy-project fixation of the current council administration.

Forward Swindon — repackaging failure?

On the same day that the University of the West of England announced it had ditched plans to build a university in Swindon, thereby knocking yet another hole in the masterplan for Swindon town centre regeneration, the council’s fantasist leader Mr Bluh was busy burying his head in the sand.

2010 will see us kicking off out of the recession because of the resilience we have here in Swindon.

The only resilience I see is in Mr Bluh’s habit of throwing our money at vanity projects.

[I]n 2009 we had one of the best years in getting the name of the Swindon known better around the country — getting rid of the speed cameras, the Radio One weekend; the wi-fi launch which attracted interest from around the world and, of course, our twinning with Disneyworld.

Let’s not forget that the council has admitted that the claimed £2M benefits from almost £½M splurged on the Radio 1 Big Weekend are partly speculation rather than fact. Let’s not forget that the almost £½M spent on wifi is on companies with minimal track record and whose project is already behind schedule. Let’s also not forget that Mr Bluh and Swindon Borough Council had no part in the Disney twinning — the once source of sustained good publicity.

So why — apart from naïvety and arrogance — is Mr Bluh so optimistic? Apparently because he’s throwing yet another £1M of our money at a replacement for the New Swindon Company. As was announced back in January, the old company and parts of the council are to be replaced by a new company, now to be named Forward Swindon*.

If Forward Swindon is to bring about the long promised regeneration, it’ll need to be considerably more successful than its predecessor — and significantly more careful with our money than its council masters. With little money available in current economic conditions, small steps rather than grand plans would be in order. Swindon needs a town centre that serves the needs of its population, rather than one that serves the ego of legacy-seeking political masters.

* Just a holding site for the moment, but registered in the name of the New Swindon Company’s Ms Ashdown.

Goodbye to Oakfield?

It seems that the University of Bath now wish to seal their departure from Swindon in rubble. The university has submitted a planning applicationfor the demolition of main campus building and all associated outbuildings/ sheds.’ Now, I wouldn’t go as far as the government’s representative in South Swindon, Ms Snelgrove, and describe it as ‘a wonderful campus building’, but as school buildings of the 1950s and 60s go it’s not that bad.

Note also how effective Ms Snelgrove’s attempt to protect Oakfield Campus has been. In the face of her own government’s legislation — which obliges owners to pay full business rates on empty commercial properties — it’s so far been a total failure.

The feel of a university

Mr Rushforth of the University of the West of England believes that the Oakfield site in Swindon does not feel like a university.

I am not sure that people thinking of sending their sons or daughters to university would think it was appropriate. It does not have the feel of a university campus.

I’m not sure what Mr Rushforth thinks a university campus should feel like: his own Frenchay campus in Bristol is not exactly stunning. Oakfield is mainly flat open fields, much like the site near Coate Water that he would prefer to locate a UWE Swindon branch on. Frenchay is also quite flat, but looks like a factory estate and office park. Neither feel like a university campus to me, but Oakfield does have the benefit that with some good architecture and landscaping — plus a smattering of students, of course — it could be made to look and feel like one. For the Frenchay campus it is already too late.

The fields around Coate don’t feel to me like a housing estate. I doubt that would convince Mr Rushforth’s developer partners. Logically, the planning inspector should find Mr Rushforth’s argument equally unconvincing.

What sort of town should Swindon be?

Reading through the political yabooery over the University of the West of England’s plans (such as they are) for a campus in Swindon, the argument — when it isn’t descending into petty jibes — seems to be not just about whether there should be a university in Swindon, but about what sort of town Swindon should be.

Mr Buckland’s concern that the plans are sketchy is reasonable enough. His point that “Great Universities don’t just appear, they evolve.” is also worth remembering amidst the University of the West of England’s hype for its plans. It’s disappointing, though wholly in character, that in response the government’s representative in South Swindon, Ms Snelgrove feels the need to go for a cheap political jibe about Mr Buckland not being a local (though coming from Wokingham, she’s clearly not a local herself).

Where Mr Buckland’s argument goes astray, in my view, is in his attempts to defend, repeatedly, Mr Tomlinson’s view that having a larger student population in Swindon is a bad thing. Yes there will be an impact on the availability of low-cost housing, but his arguments go beyond that.

Having lived in a small city (Swansea) with a large student population, I well know the often baleful effects that too much student housing can have on a neighbourhood. Noise, rubbish and a deserted feeling during holidays cause real problems for long standing local residents…. I can tell you that local residents had their lives made a misery by noise, rubbish and poorly maintained homes of multiple occupation in their midst. If that’s what you want for Swindon, then be honest about it.

That’s not what anybody would want. It’s not what a university initially targeting the local market and adult learners is likely to produce. And as Mr Buckland admits, his comparisons exaggerate the problems Swindon could face.

Swansea now has two Universities and over 20,000 students, so actually the comparison is misleading.

So don’t make the comparison!

Any large employer that develops — regardless of whether it’s a university, car manufacturer, insurance company, or railway works — changes the nature of the population in the surrounding area. The changes are rarely welcome. Communities are never static, changing with the circumstances that surround them. If the politicians want a university, which it seems that they all, except for Mr Tomlinson, they have to accept the changes — bad as well as good — that may bring.

I’ll end this rather rambling piece with a quote from Mr Leakey

Swindon has always been a town built and expanded simply because of it’s one great asset and draw over the years – work. That’s the main reason most of the people of this town have come here since the railway works started the ball rolling back in the 1840s. It’s not and never has been a centre for high class shopping, culture, history or any of the other things many other towns and cities have to offer…. It’s an honest to goodness practical and working town, Swindon should stick to doing what Swindon always has and still does best – employment.

If there is to be a university in Swindon, let it be one focused clearly on supporting Swindon’s wider employment potential, rather than its own wellbeing and the more esoteric aspects of learning.

Housing a university

Mr Tomlinson seem rather poorly informed about his own council’s plans for the town centre. The University of the West of England has long-term plans for a campus of up to 10,000 students in Swindon. Those plans are very long term according to the university’s Mr Rushforth, quoted in the Adver.

Ideally we would like to see some headway on [a town centre site] within the next year. Obviously within such a short time period that would be in the form of something like a drop-in centre. It would take around three to four years before we could open the site, and we would be looking at around 1,000 students to begin with, rising to five or six thousand. Given our ambitions we would hope over a 20-year or so period to get something like 10,000 students.

Assuming some of those students are local, it would be an equally long time before there would need to be overspill from a North Star campus, which Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan estimates could provide a campus for 7,000. At the alternative site near Coate there’s even more space. Even if the estimate for North Star is rather generous, which it seems to be, so are most universities’ estimates of their own growth potential. The University of the West of England’s ambitions correspond to it growing by 33% from its current 30,000 students — not much evidence of modest predictions there.

So why is Mr Tomlinson worrying about the effect a university might have on housing?

I am concerned about affordable accommodation being hoovered up by landlords wanting to attract students. One of the things that makes Swindon attractive… is the cost of housing and I am worried about the effect a university would have on that, and whether we would see businesses leaving Swindon. If they could build a campus for 10,000 students I would have less concern.

That looks like a bad case of compassionate ignorance to me. Being concerned for the socially disadvantaged may be a virtue; ignorance of the plans of an administration that he was, until the end of last week, a member, is not.

No Baths here

It should come as no surprise that, having abandoned plans to open a campus at Coate Water, the University of Bath has now decided to abandon its loss-leading Oakfield site. It does somewhat contrast, though, with statements that the university made at the time the Coate plans were dropped.

Professor Breakwell added: “We will continue to work closely with a wide range of external partners to explore how best to expand the higher education provision in Swindon and Wiltshire.”

As noted by all political sides, regardless of what the university might say about continuing provision in Swindon without a site here, that is very unlikely now.

A mini university of exaggeration

With a big fanfare (okay, just a press release — ‘Plans for a major university in Swindon have moved a step closer’ — a news article and a short leader article), Swindon Borough Council has announced that The University of the West of England has firmed up its interest in opening a branch in Swindon. We are told that it will be ‘a unique learning institution in the town centre.’ We are also told that it will offer about 3000 places, probably in North Star, primarily for vocational training.

It is intended that the new university will focus on the strengths of the Swindon economy, such as advanced engineering, financial services, ICT, health and social care and the heritage industry.

We will deliver teaching to employees while they work. The courses will be bespoke to the individual needs of employers like Honda and Intel. We are also looking at delivering heritage courses, which aren’t available elsewhere.

That’s about a third of the size of the existing University of Bath in Swindon and covering a very similar range of subjects. It is difficult to see what will be unique about the new campus apart from its minute size. It is quite a feat of exaggeration to describe it as ‘a major university in Swindon’.
Presumably this should mean that the Gateway plans are now dead… unless someone can be persuaded to provide a proper university for Swindon.

An empty Gateway?

No, a Gateway that is full of only houses. It seems that now, not only is there no university interested in the plans to concrete over the area around Coate Water, but the GW Hospital is not interested either. Apparently the developers’ plans have not allocated enough space for the hospital, proposing instead that an area reserved for an expanded park-and-ride car park be used for hospital development. Guess that means there’ll be no alternative but to build houses over the entire Gateway site. I’m sure the developers will be distraught at the thought.