Salford University's digital campus: 'This is not a place you come to read books'
The campus not only offers students cutting-edge technology – it also places them at the heart of the new media industry. Jonathan Brown takes a tour
Anyone in doubt as to where Salford University's vision of the future lies should pay a visit to the library at its new digital facility at MediaCity. Up on the second floor, set among the gleaming glass and break-out pods that echo the BBC's hi-tech headquarters just across the quayside, a handful of shelves house a few lonely tomes.
Yet while it is a sight to make old bibliophiles weep, the token presence of these remnants of old-world knowledge imprinted on the pulp of dead trees is not something to fear, according to Jon Corner, the director of this £50m development on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal.
In October, the first of 1,500 students and staff took up their places at Salford's new digital campus. Those nurturing a classical vision of dreaming spires will be disappointed here, admits Corner, who has described the current education system as "150 years out of date". He explains: "This is a digital futures campus. It is not a place you come to read books. It is a place to do real work on real-time digital platforms. You are not messing around – you are in the real world," says Corner, founder of Liverpool-based digital production company, River Media. Arriving at the research, production and learning facility – it is hard to really call it a college building in the conventional sense – it certainly feels like stepping into the real media world. On the day The Independent visited, the new Blue Peter helicopter was touching down in the plaza outside the two buildings to mark the long-running children's TV show's relocation to the North West – the first of a number of high-profile arrivals scheduled over the next few months. By next April, nearly 2,500 BBC staff will be working here producing sport, factual, news and children's programming.
A further 1,000 workers are also due to follow them north as part of the latest efforts to slash 20 per cent from the corporation's costs. Sharing a building is ITV, which is leaving its historic Granada headquarters across the river Irwell in Manchester and is building a new Coronation Street set at a site next to the Imperial War Museum North. Other media tenants include outside broadcast specialist Satellite Information Services (SIS). It is hoped that more small and medium-size production houses will arrive as the former dockyard continues its ambitious journey towards becoming Europe's premier media hub.
For Salford University it is not a cheap jaunt, especially at a time when higher education is facing an unprecedented squeeze in funding. It cost the university more than £22m to fit and kit the impressive building, which marks its presence in the venture. Rental costs up to 2020 – the length of the current lease with MediaCity owners Peel Holdings – will be about £19m. But for that money, students will be surrounded with cutting-edge equipment and an industry-focused attitude from its director and staff.
The centre of student life will be The Egg, a double-height meeting and research space situated in the entrance foyer and lying in the giant shadow of 120 MicroTiles screens, a wall of self-configuring, colour-saturated, high-definition hardware connected to the rest of the facilities. It is a campus bristling with HD TV studios, digital media labs and post-production facilities that would put the state broadcasters of some small European nations to shame.
Corner, who stepped into the role after it was vacated last year by the former BBC boss John Holland, hopes that soon The Egg will be buzzing with students demonstrating new products and mingling with researchers from the real digital world. It is his ambition to bring the "geek and the luvvie together in one place". To achieve this he wants to turn the traditional relationship between industry and universities around, so that leading companies come to his students looking for answers to their problems. The university has already forged partnerships with Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Centre in Pittsburgh, Adobe and Avid.
"Even if you are not the next Spielberg you will still be damned useful and have relevant skills at you fingertips," adds Corner.
He promises that, unlike a young Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who quit college to revolutionise the world of personal computing in the 1970s, there will be opportunities for young entrepreneurs to "monetise" their innovations, with cheap rents and tie-ups for the North West's budding digitocracy.
Salford is naturally keen to emphasise the physical proximity with its illustrious neighbours in MediaCity. Vice-chancellor Martin Hall, sitting in the plush management suite opposite the university's 1960s core a mile and half across town, likes to tell visitors that if they look closely, Salford students working at MediaCity will be able to look out of the windows of their classrooms and read what is on the screens of developers working next door at the BBC's Future Media department.
He concedes that the funding environment that allowed Salford to build, not least the support afforded by an £8m grant it received from the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Strategic Development Fund, is changed for ever and not for the better. And as everyone who has ever bought an iPod knows, keeping up to date with the latest equipment will be a huge ongoing cost. "Everything we develop we must route right back in. In two to three years that kit will be out of date," admits Professor Hall. This means an emphasis on overseas students and commercial tie-ups. It also means building synergies with the university's other successful departments, such as health care and acoustics.
So far, students appear attracted by the MediaCity's offer and Salford's average £8,400 fees. For this year, the university received two applications for every place and expects that number to rise dramatically now they can showcase the working building. But Professor Hall says students will know that a place at Salford does not come with a cast-iron guarantee that you will be taken on by the BBC or ITV.
"Our students know they have to do more than just get a degree. They have to be different," he says.
Future graduates can foresee plenty of career opportunities. There are currently 1.3 million people working in the creative industries digital economy sector, according to Skillset, the industry body for training, with employment growing at two per cent a year since 1997 – twice as fast as in the rest of the economy. Growth in the value of the whole sector is expected to average 3.7 per cent until 2014 when the global industry will be worth $1.7 trillion. However, its latest report suggests that 46 per cent of employers in the sector still found vacancies "hard to fill," mainly because of a lack of work experience, and it warned future digital creative professionals to expect a life characterised by freelancing and the ability to work for periods without pay.
Alison Kimberley, an MA student on induction, is unfazed by the prospect of getting a foothold in such a notoriously picky industry. She has just finished a BA in performance and new media in Chester and has the ambition to work in children's TV after completing an MA in digital media production.
She says: "I came across the course by chance. It seemed to be the perfect combination for me – being so close to the BBC children's department was certainly the main draw.
"I am not sure exactly what direction I want to pursue, but I am sure that children's is the right way forward. I know that learning is important and the MA will give me the right contacts and this is the right place to be."
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