Loughborough: more than just sport

It was a seventy-seven minute train ride from London to the East Midlands.

The landscape is flat and the buildings modern and nondescript on the short taxi ride from the station. The driver says it’s a university town, first for sport in the country, and fourth for engineering. He points out the Towers accommodation block and the new four-star, climate-controlled Elite Athlete Centre and Hotel that is being built. I am impressed and slightly suspicious about just how informed and positive he is.

Yes, Loughborough University is the best British university for sport. When a silky-skilled school friend studied there, he ended up in the football team: the 14ths. Another county-level runner friend was disappointed that she never even got to represent the university, though she enjoyed the facilities and the inter-hall competitions, going on to represent Jersey in the Island Games.  Loughborough has come first in the overall championship of sporting competitions run by British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) for 38 years in a row. Some rankings have it as #1 in the world for sport-related subjects.

For the past two years, it has also hosted the four-day, 1,000-participant, 11-sport School Games National Finals.

The sports facilities are, of course, impressive, from the water-based hockey pitch to the hi-tech gyms, indoor athletics and gymnastics equipment, National Cricket Centre, and the new hotel, everything is designed to be as close to top-level competitive conditions as possible.

Apparently, the new £50m hotel’s rooms will be able to replicate climatic altitude conditions of up to 5,000 metres. Appointed in 2017, its current chancellor is Sebastian Coe: alumni, politician and Olympic gold-medallist and organiser.

If Loughborough were a country it would have come 10th in the 2016 Paralympics, bringing home 22 medals. Similarly, 12 of Team GB’s 67 Olympic medals went to Loughborough athletes (almost matching Yorkshire).

And all the rest…

But Loughborough is keen to demonstrate that it’s good at far more than sport. It performs well on pretty much all the league tables, with banners across campus proclaiming “Top 10 research university in England” in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), or a “Gold Teaching Excellence Framework” award. It recently got “best university” in one league table. About 50% of its activities are actually focused on science and engineering.

The university also does well for student experience, as campus universities tend to do. Friends who went there recall a friendly community and public schoolesque range of facilities readily available. The students’ union features 170 student clubs and societies, as well as a 4,000-person venue which has hosted student-friendly acts such as Professor Green, S Club, the Vengaboys and the Chuckle Brothers (RIP Barry).

On-campus bus services are free, or it’s £2 to town. The M1 is a two-minute drive away, and East Midlands Airport 15 minutes. The hills of the Peak District and Cannock Chase are each 40 miles Eastwards. The bright lights of Leicester, Nottingham and Derby are under 20 miles.

The university was founded by Herbert Schofield, who was principal of Loughborough College for 35 years and a great believer in educating “the mind and the body”. In 1909 a small technical institute was established, evolving through several iterations that included merging with Loughborough College of Education and with Loughborough College of Art and Design. In 1966, Loughborough University of Technology was granted a university charter – and was renamed Loughborough University thirty years later. It’s grown quickly and achieved a lot over the years. In the 2016-17 academic year, it’s income was over £300m, with almost £20m of surplus.

At 440 acres, the campus is big, a forty-five minute walk end to end. It’s divided into “parks” and boasts 17 halls of residence, from the brand new to classic 1960s concrete pebbledash.

The 21-storey Towers building falls into the latter category but has been recently refurbished. The iconic Hazlerigg Hall was opened in 1938, with an accompanying fountain gifted from the students’ union inscribed with the motto veritate scientia labore; truth, wisdom, and labour. Almost £50m is planned on a brace of new halls incorporating 600 rooms and the UK’s first “active campus” – designed to encourage wellbeing and fitness while fitting in with the surrounding environment. Another campus highlight is the 1932 Bastard Gates, named after one William Bastard, chairman of the college governors at the time.

The well-equipped Pilkington Library was opened in 1980 and renovated in 2013, it features a taxi call button in the foyer and a resident cat, Charlie.

Muntjac deer have been spotted on campus and there’s a very oddly-shaped Cedar warped by historic snowfall.

Loughborough University Science and Enterprise Park (LUSEP) is part of an enterprise zone and hosts a thriving community of 75 established and new businesses, which can tap into the university’s research base and talent pool. Student placements and graduate positions are offered by many of these organisations, with an increasing number of alumni start-ups keen to provide career-enhancing opportunities. The graduate incubator has nurtured 50 new businesses so far, creating 80 graduate jobs and 67 internships since 2012. It’s estimated that the university supports approximately 14,400 full-time equivalent jobs, and generates almost £1 billion in gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy.

Across the road from the university is Loughborough College. Largely a FE college, it also offers some HE programmes that are validated by Loughborough University. Its students are also members of Loughborough Students’ Union and can access its clubs, activities and support services.

Meanwhile, down in London, the postgraduate campus was opened in 2015 on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. Established exclusively for postgraduate study and research, the campus accommodates up to 1,000 students in a collaborative learning environment, surrounded by the creative start-ups at Here East (and me, a ten-minute cycle along the canal). Loughborough University London offers masters and PhD programmes such as digital technologies, sports business, and diplomacy and international governance, which are all distinct from the teaching and research foci up at the mothership.

Modernising teaching and learning

The (3rd annual) teaching and learning conference that I was speaking at was accompanied by a “technology showcase” exhibition. One stall, staffed by the library team, was for Lynda.com, soon to become LinkedIn Learning after the professional network company acquired the business in 2005 for $1.5B (itself acquired by Microsoft for over £20 billion in 2016).

Loughborough University is one of several UK institutions with a site-wide licence for LinkedIn Learning, covering all 3,800 staff and 17,800 students. The service offers online courses on a range of subject and work-related skills, with personalised course recommendations and insights about usage. Topics include project management, understanding 3D printing, presentation skills, photography 101, mastering Python, and management skills such as conflict management and performance reviews.

Speaking to staff it sounds as if this initiative has been good for supporting the development of technical skills, and that “playlists” of courses can be curated e.g. supporting teaching and learning, research methodologies, software packages, particular courses or concepts, or to show what’s most popular in each department. It’s seen as a useful way to develop “digital fluency” across the university, and although it’s early days, is seeing a rising number of active users.

The four themes for the conference were digital literacy, student engagement, how students learn, and wellbeing and diversity. Topics covered included: student blogs and videos; online, video and peer assessment; experiential learning; flipped classrooms; supporting placement students; and virtual reality (VR) teaching. The day closed with teaching innovation awards and a gin bar (both of which I missed sadly).

The university aims to be research-intensive, with teaching informed by research and delivered by staff who are carrying out research themselves. It’s been awarded seven Queen’s Anniversary prizes for research quality, and partners include Caterpillar, Rolls Royce, and the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine. It’s 2,500 research staff and doctoral researchers bring in over £40m of research grants a year, across five “beacon” research areas: the built environment; communication and culture; high-value manufacturing; sport and exercise; and transport technologies. Four global challenge programmes use interdisciplinary and international collaborations to explore: changing environments and infrastructure; energy; health and wellbeing; and secure and resilient societies.  

Rachel Thomson is Pro Vice Chancellor (Teaching), an engineer by background, and clearly passionate about student success. Appointed two years ago, she has been leading on a digital strategy focused on combining face-to-face teaching with new technologies, and developing the digital fluency of staff and students. She talked about the challenge of understanding the different expectations from each generation of students and developing the data and systems required to meet a range of purposes.

Some of the developments she described included a focus on ensuring students have ready access to all university information systems and tools in one place and to recordings of teaching. Apparently, this has all been well received and offers particular benefits to students with special needs. Usage has been high, especially during revision periods, with students often checking back on specific bits of information rather than watching whole lectures.

Investment in physical facilities over the last year includes the new £17m STEMlab teaching building.

It features workshops with car engines for dismantling, classrooms with workbenches, labs full of 3D printers, a Hawk fighter aircraft, jet engines, drones, and several cars from the annual Formula Student competition – this year led by Monty Jeacock-Fewtrell.

Engineering and design

Away from the shiny, hi-tech equipment, there are still some more traditional engineering workshops on-site, where students will probably get their hands dirty.

This Leicestershire market town is an engineering hub too, with electrical equipment manufacturer BRUSH’s facilities sitting alongside the train station. Although it doesn’t make it into the “top ten” for the proportion of locals employed, the university is the town’s biggest employer, and 20% of its staff come from 90 other nations. I pondered if this might generate some local resentment from the minority of people without a direct personal connection to the university, though perhaps that’s inevitable.

The £21m design school was opened in 2011, now with over 100 staff. It has partnered with firms such as Nissan, transport for London and Adidas. Such research collaborations have included redesigning ambulances, revealing lorry’s blind-spots, developing self-driving vehicles, and designing Team GB’s cycling “hot pants”.

Some of the slick outputs from its 700 students (from over 30 countries) include a Bokashi home composter, hi-tech sleeping aids, internet-connected bird feeders, personal air-quality monitors, and a “self-monitoring urban beehive”. My personal favourites are bike handlebars with inbuilt GPS, navigation, security and indicators; and an avalanche guidance locator beacon. Students won four New Designers awards last year.

Loughborough design graduates were identified as the most employable last year in the Design School Survey, going on to work at firms such as Sebastian Conran and Dyson, with Richard Joseph (of the kitchenware) an alumnus. Four-fifths of Loughborough design students take up the offer of industrial and international placements. Courses include user-centred design as well as product design and technology. A Teaching Hub has recently been built with more development planned: many buildings are being refurbished or lined-up to be and there’s a new architecture programme. Other plans include launching the Start-Up Lab to encourage student enterprise, and the building of more student accommodation halls.

Joining the big league

Robert Allison, the Vice Chancellor, spoke at the conference too, describing the “stiff competition” out there. He also talked of how competitors such as Durham, Bristol, and Exeter are changing, and said the learning and teaching questions in the national student survey (NSS) were becoming more challenging. He described how the university was becoming more selective, with a higher UCAS tariff for entry, and that this came with higher expectations from students – that they want to engage more, not be passive learners. Allison is also a vocal critic of the rise in unconditional offers.

A student ambassador and one of the press team proudly walked me around the campus. The former talked of being active as an engineer, sports supporter and volunteer referee, without it being a problem that she is one of the 28% of Loughborough students who don’t actually play sport at least once a week.

That weekend over 21,000 visitors (prospective applicants and their families) were expected for open days. I wondered how the complicated student support system and current headlines would impact on their decisions, with the repayment threshold rise (to £25,725 from April 2019) the latest of many changes. I also heard about the STEM community day, which attracted 650 local young people and their families last year, for hands-on and interactive demonstrations. In total the university works with 660 schools nationally, reaching 52,000 individuals through outreach recruitment activities in 2017-18. The annual arts festival celebrates the university’s creative arts and runs alongside the Art and Design Degree shows. In the 2016-17 academic year, Loughborough students volunteered over 20,000 hours locally.

I ended my first visit to Loughborough happily surprised. Here was a university without hundreds of years of prestige (and the accompanying assets) behind it, and also without pretension. It felt modern, focused and bloody successful. And it’s definitely about more than sport, though it is still rather good at that.  

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