The Civic University Commission will be visiting the universities in Nottingham later this week, but I got a foretaste of what’s in store for them.
It was a sunny Spring day for the journey from St Pancras up to Nottingham.
This East Midlands city of 322,000 “Nottinghamians” is highly multicultural, with fewer than two-thirds of the population white British, and large European, Asian, and African communities. It’s a popular tourist destination, with lots of sports facilities and the river Trent running through its southern edge. It’s estimated to be the seventh biggest metropolitan economy in the country, with a focus on life sciences, financial services and digital media. Historically, its key industries were lace-making, tobacco, and bicycle-making. It’s famous for caves and a certain do-gooding bandit.
I was made to feel like a real VIP by the team there, though sadly nobody said “ay-up me duck” at any point. After meeting Alex Miles and Léonie Mathers in the External Relations Team, I was escorted by the latter around two of the university’s six UK campuses. The scale of the place meant we even had a driver – Steve Wright – who has taken round countless visiting dignitaries over the years, including the enigmatic-sounding “Madam Xu”, who is Chairperson of the Wanli Education Group in Ningbo (China) and has a futuristic university building named after her in Nottingham.
University Park Campus
The first thing that strikes you is that the university is big – both in size and numbers. At 300 acres, the main campus is one of the largest in the UK, and yet is only a couple of miles from the city centre, with the busy A52 ring road cutting across one corner.
On one side of the road is the functional-looking Queen’s Medical Centre (QMC), part of Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and home to the University of Nottingham’s medical school – which also has sites at Royal Derby Hospital, Nottingham City Hospital, and King’s Mill Hospital in Mansfield.
On the other side, there’s a mix of buildings from different eras. Some classic 1960s architecture – all hopeful concrete and geometric abstraction – includes the 17-storey Tower Building. From 1928, the beautiful former University College Nottingham buildings include a (quite literally) ivory-white tower set on a hill. I wonder if this coined the phrase or was built to honour it. Either way, it felt slightly melancholic to me, symbolising an age of hope rather than fear, and when universities were revered rather than reviled.
We drove through extensive landscaped grounds that Capability Brown and Michael Barber would be proud of, and past a Hollywood-esque and proudly technicolour NOTTINGHAM sign. Tucked behind are the Creative Energy Buildings – demonstration eco-houses designed by the Architecture & Built Environment department, featuring carbon neutral designs, solar panels, and a typical semi-detached house designed to be repeatedly and ever-more-efficiently retro-fitted.
In 1928 the site was established for a “great people’s university … to spread the light of learning and knowledge, and bind science and industry in unity”, by the Boots family (of chemist fame). The company still has an unassuming little house on site for occasional board meetings.
Staff are evidently proud of the campus’s unique 15-years-and-counting status as a Green Flag Award winner – with walks and cycle routes through the grounds all open to the public.
There are 12 halls of residence for over 3,000 students, a conference and exhibition centre, sports facilities (also publicly accessible), and probably the fanciest students’ union building I’ve ever seen – akin to a country manor. There’s also The Orchard, a £20m 200-bed four-star eco-hotel, one of two on-site hotels. Ongoing (re)development was visible in places, though when it comes to funding such projects, apparently “the good times are probably over”.
Culture for all
The campus is next to a pretty boating lake, alongside the low verdigris-roofed buildings of Lakeside Arts, which features two art galleries, a museum, a recital hall, a visitor’s centre, artist studios, cafes and a theatre – all easily accessible to the public with a city tram line stop and a “top twenty” university car park.
There is a wide range of public performances, exhibitions, workshops and talks on offer – such as an immersive show about Guantanamo Bay as a future holiday destination, the “Wheee! International Children’s Theatre and Dance Festival”, mosaic-making workshops, the “Lustre craft festival”, and a “create a play in a week” summer school for teens. Over 200,000 people attended social and cultural events at the university last year.
Clare Pickersgill (below), the Keeper of the University of Nottingham Museum, explained how they discover and explain local history through archaeological research and exhibitions, as well as professional development for teachers. They also encourage citizens across the country (and beyond) to take part in remote research experiments.
The head of Lakeside Arts – Shona Powell – showed me people hard at work backstage on the latest production, Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, a collaboration involving students from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham.
It’s good to hear about the new Nottingham Cultural Partnership, with the university and its neighbour Nottingham Trent University both core partners, as the pair have over 60,000 students in the city. Teams from the two universities are now meeting regularly, and the partnership has developed a ten-year plan for culture and creativity across Nottingham, which was agreed by the City Council in October. It focuses on five themes: quality, education, place, economy, as well as health and wellbeing.
The university is playing an active role in many city-wide initiatives, such as Nottingham’s permanent designation as a UNESCO Creative City, which includes its 2015 title as (one of the twenty-seven around the world) UNESCO City of Literature. This aims to use literature to attract visitors, engage residents, and explore contested issues such as identity, gender, race, and place.
Over lunch, I got to meet people leading local dance companies, theatres, concert halls, and art spaces. Brexit reared its head again, as many in the room had been involved in leading Nottingham’s European Capital of Culture 2023 bid, which was cancelled in November as a pawn in the ongoing negotiations.
Tackling local disadvantage
As with many UK cities, Nottingham faces stubbornly-low educational performance across many of its schools, in part echoing the challenging socio-economic context. The university tries to help in a range of ways, including engaging 200 regional schools in widening participation (WP) activities and even running two itself – both now academies. It sounds like running a school is tough, even for a big university, though both schools are now on the up. The university’s involvement predates the now largely abandoned government proposals to force universities to run free schools.
The university also aims to increase participation across the city by having local children learn on-site. I got to join a “Science Fair Discovery Day” run by the WP team in one of the chemistry department’s huge labs. About 70 children – from a local primary and a local special school – were moving between stations run by enthusiastic university staff and graduate students, mostly giving up their time for free (as did 150 staff last year).
This was learning science the fun way; creating glittery slime, bending coloured lights, freezing (then smashing) fruit, examining fossils, analysing kiwi fruit DNA, and – of course – making a banana piano. The kids seemed to enjoy the safety specs too; some things never change.
Last academic year the university spent £17.5m on WP, including bursaries, flexible admissions, and £2m on outreach activities. The latter resulted in 83,000 places on activities for less-advantaged local children. The university’s undergraduate intake from local WP schools and colleges has more than doubled since 2002 – now standing at 10% of the total. Almost a quarter of the UK students entering the university are now from low-income backgrounds, with the rate of improvement above the Russell Group average.
It was a five-minute drive across town to the 66-acre Jubilee Campus. En route we saw the admissions team’s office (fittingly situated) in the impressive gatehouse to a Tudor manor house, which was famously used as Wayne Manor in the film Batman Begins. I wasn’t expecting the East Midlands to be quite so… Hollywood.
Jubilee looks like a space fleet landing zone. The futuristic cluster of new buildings includes the business school, the Yang Fujia building (named after the university’s former nuclear-physicist chancellor), the carbon-neutral GSK-sponsored research lab, the advanced manufacturing department, the Dearing (of report fame) building, and yes – Madam Xu’s building.
4,000 student residences are also on-site or nearby, as well as the Djanogly Learning Resource Centre, one of several university and city buildings named after the local textile multi-millionaire and philanthropist.
The university has won awards for its sustainable development of this brownfield site, with lakes, green roofs, and hi-tech building features (including biomass boilers, passive ventilation, lighting sensors, heat recovery systems, and even more solar panels).
And yet, although the area now employs more people than when it was the site of companies such as Raleigh Bicycle Company and Player cigarettes – with the latter’s listed building pictured below – how many locals know that? Knowledge economy work tends to be less visible and more international, creating challenges for how the university convinces locals of what it’s doing for them.
Starting (and keeping) things spinning
The Ingenuity Centre is a futuristic disc-shaped building, opened by Jo Johnson in 2016. Its’ head, Steve Chapman, explains that the 2,500 inter-disciplinary members within its community include those (domestic and international) students and alumni who are working on 272 new enterprises.
In addition to a co-working space supporting start-ups, the team also runs the annual “Ingenuity Competition”, aiming to nurture a new cohort of entrepreneurs to come up with solutions to modern challenges. With c.1,500 entrepreneurs applying for a chance to win c.£150k of grants and business mentorship support. Apparently, this makes it the biggest such event in the UK, if not the world. Much of that growth has come from c £800k of European funding over the last three years through the Enabling Innovation programme. That has also supported the centre’s involvement in the Universitas 21 “global ingenuity challenge”.
Many of the people and businesses the centre supports are international, some directly interacting with local people and organisations, but often bringing more indirect benefits such as raising Nottingham’s profile, making it a desirable place to work, or inventing things that help people in their daily lives. The university’s recent spin-out companies develop such things as baby heart-rate monitors, nanoparticles, and optimised staff rostering software. The university was also the place that invented the first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, though that was 41 years ago.
Although initially, the centre has largely focused on supporting students and alumni, it is now also starting to work with other partners to help foster innovation and creativity across the city and its schools. There are plans for a city-wide ingenuity competition soon.
However, Brexit is creating uncertainty about funding, with the centre’s activities lying outside teaching and research, and so relying heavily on (externally) competitive European money or the (internally) competitive higher education innovation funding (HEIF). The centre is engaging the Midlands Engine and the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to maintain momentum, but again it’s competitive and highly political. It’s not clear if the current incentive structures created by national policies encourage the Centre’s various activities, with details of the knowledge exchange framework (KEF) still opaque.
I was sad not to visit the rural Sutton Bonington campus, especially once I heard it is the home of the brewing science department and has a dairy innovation centre with an onsite calving unit. Maybe next time.
Of the bridges across the A52, the “Ningbo Friendship Bridge” is the biggest and most modern, opened in 2014 to commemorate the decade since the University of Nottingham campus in Ningbo, China was established.
In addition to its local civic aspirations, the university is clearly very proudly international, with its other international campus – opened in 2000 in Semenyih, Malaysia – one of the first international UK university campuses anywhere.
In that time the university has facilitated a range of civic and economic ties between Nottingham and the two countries, from helping local businesses establish themselves overseas and vice versa, to research partnerships, and 100+ person-strong reciprocal delegations. I saw the Chinese stone lions gifted from Ningbo, and heard of the bronze Robin Hood statue sent in return.
Each campus has design features echoing its UK parent, with landscaped gardens, a lake, some space-age buildings, and an iconic ivory tower at the centre. But they are also largely independent.
In total there are currently c.47,000 students across the three countries, with 33,000 of those in the UK. There is also 9,000 staff, 7,000 of whom are in the UK. I wonder how well the c.12,000 international students currently in Nottingham are integrated with the home students, let alone the locals, and what kind of experience the different groups have. All students are required to sign up to a statement that they will acknowledge their “responsibilities to the communities” they temporarily join, and over 3,000 volunteered locally in Nottingham last year.
I picked up a copy of Impact, the students’ union’s magazine, which had an article on integrating exchange students. It highlighted differences in culture, language barriers, and the challenges from not starting their studies together, but also how clubs and societies can help draw-out reclusive international students and build relationships. The SU has appointed a new international coordinator and is looking to promote more inclusive events that don’t involve alcohol.
The university’s commissioned economic calculations suggest it has a total economic impact on the UK of £1.5bn gross value added (GVA), with half of that directly benefiting the city of Nottingham. That includes 5,500 jobs, 800 of which are in the city. The university also aims to have an impact in Westminster, putting on Nottingham in Parliament day last September, with over 2,500 people attending 45 Parliamentary events focused on Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.
Clearly very proud of the place, on parting Wright makes sure to give me a glossy photo-book about the university. If the university can be a bridge between Nottingham and the rest of the world, without neglecting either, then surely it should be fulfilling its civic mission.