Stoking fires of learning

A university quarter is planned for 'education cold spot' Stoke-on-Trent, where buildings and public spaces will symbolise and encourage learning, reports Jim Kelly
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The Independent Online

There is not much memorable about Stoke. Even Arnold Bennett, the novelist who chronicled life in The Potteries in Anna of the Five Towns, managed to forget there were actually six. But next week a scheme is launched to give this urban ribbon of undistinguished cityscape a landmark no one could miss - a university. The idea is to give the City of Stoke - created in 1910 - a university quarter. This would be a new city neighbourhood, staked out by a series of iconic buildings, through which people could walk between the city centre in Hanley - where Bennett was born - and Stoke, where visitors arrive via the railway station. The lynchpin of the plan is Staffordshire University - which already has a campus in the area. Of course it is not alone in using bricks and mortar to stake out an identity. Latest figures show British universities are spending more than £1.3bn a year on major capital projects. The current spending spree may end up rivalling those which gave us Oxbridge's medieval colleg

There is not much memorable about Stoke. Even Arnold Bennett, the novelist who chronicled life in The Potteries in Anna of the Five Towns, managed to forget there were actually six. But next week a scheme is launched to give this urban ribbon of undistinguished cityscape a landmark no one could miss - a university. The idea is to give the City of Stoke - created in 1910 - a university quarter. This would be a new city neighbourhood, staked out by a series of iconic buildings, through which people could walk between the city centre in Hanley - where Bennett was born - and Stoke, where visitors arrive via the railway station. The lynchpin of the plan is Staffordshire University - which already has a campus in the area. Of course it is not alone in using bricks and mortar to stake out an identity. Latest figures show British universities are spending more than £1.3bn a year on major capital projects. The current spending spree may end up rivalling those which gave us Oxbridge's medieval colleges and the great Red Brick universities. But Staffordshire, and a handful of other similar projects in the UK and abroad, break with such traditions because they are driven by the need to reach out into communities were education is held in low esteem. Such areas - and Stoke is a prime example - have been labelled education "cold spots". In the era of top-up fees and widening participation it is vital to capture these non-traditional students.

In Stoke the idea is to use educational buildings and public spaces to symbolise accessible learning, an idea discussed in Europe for more than thirty years but now popular again, ironically at the same time as the UK government's disastrous e-university has folded - having spent £50m teaching 900 students - graphically illustrating the limits of reaching out to the masses through a virtual, rather than physical, university. To achieve their goal the planners at Stoke want the university quarter to entice the public in, not keep them out. The porter's lodge, the portal, and the impenetrable facade of the Victorian era are gone. Second, Stoke epitomises a trend towards educational partnership.

The university quarter is a joint venture, planned to accommodate a redeveloped Stoke on Trent College, and a relocated City of Stoke on Trent Sixth Form College - which, with the redeveloped university, would give a total of 46,000 students. "At the moment a lot of people wouldn't even know we were here," says Professor Howard Green, an expert in urban planning and senior adviser to Staffordshire University's vice-chancellor. "The university quarter will say we are here and have facilities which will draw people in - like the Knowledge Hub. The whole site will be 'permeable' - not cut off." The quarter is planned to include student residences and new prestigious housing - especially along a canalside frontage which threads through the area. All three educational partners will be on site and there are plans to include shopping and commercial development as well as space for university spin-out companies in purpose-built incubators.

Work has already begun on creating shared curricula between all the institutions. This will have a regional impact as the university has a networked partnership with 10 other further education colleges. "Its about maximising facilities that we've got. We have a model court in the law school for example and the sixth form does A-level law so clearly it would be useful if they could use it too," says Professor Green.

The hope is that the university quarter will help overcome the poor image that holds back The Potteries' economic performance. The area is blighted by poor education, low skills, and a battered and uninspiring urban landscape. "Stoke has had a low brow image, as a characterless place, and not one you'd want to establish yourself in as a potential student, or as a business,"says Jerry Spencer, assistant director for regeneration strategy at Stoke City Council.

But what kind of buildings can really inspire a population who for generations have - in large numbers - avoided university? Mike Wolfe is the elected mayor of Stoke and believes the project - which now has widespread backing locally - can begin to renew the city's confidence: "The buildings need to be sculptural, and have that obvious level of quality which you ought to get in a piece of public art. They need to express what is going on inside them - so I think they need to be clever buildings." Stoke is not alone in hoping wider access can kick-start an economic recovery. Doncaster in South Yorkshire is another city about to embark on a major project to overcome its education "cold spot" image.

The Doncaster Education City Project (DECP) envisages an investment of £100m on a canalside site, partly inspired by a successful project in Gothenburg, Sweden, which saw two universities and a technical college collaborate in a "learning city" - an idea first mooted internationally in the 1960s. The Doncaster project - backed by schools and the local authority - underpins a plan to bring a university to the city. Doncaster College missed out on polytechnic status due to a technicality a few years before the new universities came into being in 1992. Doncaster points to Lincoln's successful relaunch of a university - again using a new riverside site and stylish buildings in an education "cold spot."

"The big issue here is the low rate of participation in higher education amongst the local population - 42 per cent nationally and just 17 per cent here," says Dr George Holmes, principal of Doncaster College and chief executive of the DECP, which has already attracted project funding. "Clearly there is a need for a central place, a great institution which draws people in," says Dr Holmes: "We need to create a cathedral for learning if you like - based around the waterfront." But can the architects rise to the challenge ? Leonie Milliner, for the Royal Institute of British Architects, believes universities are beginning to respond to a trend first apparent in schools, prompted by the idea that the physical built environment can enthuse people to learn. "Getting away from the lines of desks in the Victorian classroom is part of this idea and it has cascaded up into higher education. With top-up fees coming in 2006 universities are working hard to differentiate themselves as well - and the obvious way is through visual image and how approachable the university appears, something which is particularly important to those with no previous experience of university."

Can buildings really be popular and iconic at the same time ? Doesn't grandeur signal elitism? "Wembley Stadium is an iconic building and I hope people will still turn up to see the games," says Professor Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of CMU - the umbrella organisation for new universities. "No one is building Victorian follies. We have a new library in Hendon which is exciting, interesting and a real attractor. Student surveys rank libraries and IT facilities as the things they think are most important, not the bar. This is about access - but it is about access to quality, not rubbish."

education@independent.co.uk

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