Onward and upward

York has been one of the most successful and popular of the Sixties universities, and is now planning to double in size. Lucy Hodges looks at whether it can retain its intimate feel
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The Independent Online

Next week, Greg Dyke flies to the United States to bang the drum for York University. The former director general of the BBC was a politics student at York in the Seventies, and from August 2004 will be the university's new Chancellor. The purpose of his US visit is to press the flesh of alumni in the company of the vice-chancellor Professor Brian Cantor - and to secure nice fat donations from graduates who have made good.

York needs all the money it can get, because it is about to double in size. The university, which opened its doors to 230 students in 1963 and which had a low profile during the Seventies and Eighties, has become a phenomenon. Despite its small size, it does very well in the league tables for teaching and research, has been brilliant at attracting research funds and is popular with students. It needs to expand to become stronger, according to Professor Cantor. But it has reached maximum capacity on its present campus. "We want to grow for reasons of academic and financial health," he says.

So, the plan is to build another campus, Heslington East, on 110 hectares of ploughed field belonging to Lord Halifax, and to magic out of the Yorkshire earth four new residential colleges, a performing arts centre, sports facilities, space for spin-out companies and some new academic departments. No other university is expanding on this scale.

"The plan is to double in physical size over the next 10 to 15 years," says the vice-chancellor. "This will make the university very substantial."

One of the most exciting aspects of that development will be the new academic departments. York is planning to add some vocational subjects to its largely academic menu, and is toying with law and dentistry as well as theatre, film and TV. Needless to say, Dyke has shown a keen interest in the creative arts offering. The university intends to teach these subjects in a way that other universities don't. "We are going to have a theatre, film and TV department that will mix performance and practice," says Professor Cantor. "It will combine performance with theory, and add to that science and technology."

Three departments will give birth to the new creative arts department. They are music, English and electronics. All three are already combining theory and practice. Music is 50 per cent performance and 50 per cent theory, which is quite unusual, according to Professor Cantor. The English department, which has been awarded a coveted 5* in the research assessment exercise, has already seen a growth in writing and performance. And the electronics department is big on music and media technology.

But the university is not stopping there with its new broom. It intends to innovate in law as well. The idea is to produce a law degree with the professional training on top. York is looking hard at a law school that would offer four years of training and an integrated professional route to a career in the law. At the moment, budding lawyers do three years of law as an academic subject, followed by one year's professional training at a separate law college ora university.

The university expects to complete the planning processes for the new campus by the early summer of 2005, and to begin building after that. The plan is for the construction to take two-and-a-half years. "Between now and next summer we will complete the planning process and get funding for at least one-third of it, with a view to bringing buildings on stream between 2007 and 2010," says Professor Cantor. How will the new campus and all these developments be funded? The vice-chancellor is coy about finance. "It's a very substantial sum," he says. "It's in the hundreds of millions."

York is no stranger to building. In fact, it seems that the university has been constantly undergoing renewal or being built over for the last three or four years. The recent building programme, which involved the erection of the new Hull-York medical school, a new bioscience centre, a new health and social science centre plus new chemistry, psychology and music buildings, cost £120m, according to Professor Cantor. "This would be of a similar magnitude, maybe a bit bigger, and would be over a similar time frame," he adds. "That's why we are confident that we can do it."

Money will be raised from government bodies, benefactors and from the university's own borrowing. Three key partners are already supporting it, in spirit if not yet in kind. They are the Higher Education Funding Council, Yorkshire Forward, which is the regional development agency, and the city council. Local politicians of all shades are supportive because they know the importance of the new campus for the development of the city.

But although the university will double in size physically, it will not double its student numbers. They will grow from 10,000 to around 15,000, which keeps it a small university, according to Professor Cantor. "We're not going to grow to be large," he says. "We're going to stay with a small-university style."

His belief is that its small size is one of its strengths, enabling it to be agile and unstuffy. Another strength is its emphasis on the environment. From the beginning, the city fathers limited buildings to 20 per cent of the available space. The university has now reached that limit, hence the new campus. But the fact that building was controlled so tightly has meant that York is surrounded by greenery. The campus is landscaped with willow trees and a big lake full of ducks that snakes around the various colleges, and that serves to soften the harsh contours of the Sixties concrete rectangles.

The university is determined to maintain that leafiness in its new campus, which is also being built with generous amounts of parkland and a lake. Students are not allowed cars on campus at the moment. In Heslington East, the plan is to have a "people-mover", a Disney World-style tram that will run every few minutes and take students between the two campuses. "We are trying to devise a traffic plan that stops people bringing in their cars," says John Meacock, the project director of the development. "We envisage them leaving their cars at the park-and-ride alongside the new campus and taking the tram to wherever it is they want to go."

No institution can afford to stand still, however successful it is. Hence York's ambitious plans for the future. The hope is that Dyke and others who are rooting for the university will succeed in their efforts to raise money. York must be thanking its lucky stars that 30 years ago a bold admissions tutor was prepared to take a gamble on Greg, a mature student with only one grade E at A-level. He or she must have had no idea where it would lead. That risk-taking has continued, and is now expected to take York onward and upward.


One of the most successful of the Sixties universities, York has benefited from concentrating on a small number of large departments and building up its expertise in a few areas such as biology, chemistry and health studies. That has enabled it to lure in money for smart new research buildings and equipment, such as the biosciences building opened by Lord Sainsbury in 2003 for research into cancer, immunity, ecology and climate change. Just one of its many current subjects of inquiry is the barn owl, which has suffered serious population decline. Researchers are looking at the bird's habitat and feeding preferences with a view to strengthening national conservation plans for the species.

Highly rated for teaching as well as research, the university was awarded the very top 5* grades in psychology, computer science and English in the 2001 research-assessment exercise. Most other departments scored 5. York came 16th out of 106 in The Independent's research league table.

Students live in colleges on the main campus, which is where academic departments, bars and cafeterias are also to be found. This gives the university a cosy, intimate feel, and helps first-year undergraduates to feel at home.

In 2003, the university celebrated its 40th birthday, attracting 80 of the 230 original students back for an anniversary dinner. A hallmark of the institution has been its liberal-mindedness and openness. The first vice-chancellor always took his meals in the cafeteria with everyone else. The Queen may have disliked some of the early colleges, clad in the famous Clasp concrete, but age has been kind to York, softening the hard edges and cheaply built buildings with willow trees and landscaped grounds.

Famous alumni include Graham Swift, the writer, who never completed his PhD at York; Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, who did complete a doctorate at the university; Adam Hart-Davis, the broadcaster; Baroness Genista McIntosh, the former director of the Royal Opera House; Labour MPs Harriet Harman and Tony Banks; and Peter Hitchens, the Mail on Sunday columnist.

The university's best-known academic is Laurie Taylor, the former sociology professor, now a writer and broadcaster who satirises academic life in a weekly column in The Times Higher Education Supplement.