Will the new campus in Ipswich give Suffolk a lift?

Higher education has arrived in Ipswich – and with it, daring architecture and a groundbreaking model for universities. Lucy Hodges hits the campus
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The Independent Online

Ipswich, the county town of Suffolk, is famous for being the birthplace of Henry VIII's aide Cardinal Wolsey. But apart from a reference in Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch, it has been rather overlooked. It has no cathedral, which is why it's still a town, not a city, and until recently it was the largest town in England without a university.

That has now changed. As of last autumn, Ipswich has its own university structure, University Campus Suffolk, complete with a glamorous new curved building that hugs the waterfront and is full of thousands of students. "It's been a beef of mine for 15 to 20 years that the county didn't have a university," says James Hehir, chief executive of Ipswich Borough Council.

"Suffolk was one of only two or three counties without a university, so we were seeing a number of young people going off to do degrees in other towns and not returning. Moreover, this area is growing and we have some very major IT industries, such as BT, which has its headquarters in Ipswich, so we need a university. This will have a major impact on the local economy."

The vice-chancellor, Bob Anderson, agrees but emphasises other benefits apart from the brain drain and the economy. Until now, the county had been mired in a culture of low aspiration and low achievement. The local people didn't aim high and, as a result, did not get very high.

Furthermore, their skill levels were nothing to write home about. So, to improve their prospects and their opportunities, a university was needed.

Young people in the area do well up to GCSE level, but after that, their achievement falls off. They perform below the national average at A-level and participation in higher education is low. A university should push those figures northwards.

University Campus Suffolk is an unusual beast in that it is a creation of two other universities: the University of Essex and the University of East Anglia (UEA). It was born when Sir Ivor Crewe, formerly Essex's vice-chancellor and now Master of University College, Oxford, got together with David Eastwood, formerly boss of UEA and now the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council, to see how Suffolk could be brought in from the cold.

They had a clever wheeze: buy up the degree courses done by Suffolk College of Further Education and create a free-standing campus in Ipswich with degrees awarded by both universities. And that is what they did. University Campus Suffolk is a company limited by guarantee with two owners, the universities of Essex and East Anglia. It is unique; there is no other university model like it.

The Ipswich building is the central hub but the spokes go out to other towns – Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Otley and Bury St Edmunds – where students can sign up for university courses and take them in the local further-education college. A wide range of programmes is on offer, but the emphasis is on vocational qualifications.

The campus is also running small centres in the market towns of Stowmarket, Haverhill, Mildenhall and Beccles to try to interest people in the life of the mind or in improving their skills. These centres give advice and guidance on anything from basic literacy to taking a PhD.

Although the University Campus Suffolk opened its doors in 2007, it was not until last September that its new building was ready. It was worth waiting for – a large curved structure that took £31m and only 18 months to erect. Richard Lister, director of planning and resources, is proud the building went up so fast and so economically. "It is a model for the University Challenge," he says, referring to the Government's programme to get more universities built around Britain.

Clad in dramatic blue, grey and off-white panels and boasting a sloping sedum roof as well as multicoloured windows, the building was designed by the architects RMJM to deliver "a landmark statement" to make an impression and wow the public. Peter Williams, RMJM's project director, clearly relished the task, because he had a blank canvas. The interior has been kept flexible so that spaces can be reconfigured over time according to the needs of the institution, its staff and students.

Neil Jackson, the campus's director of estates and facilities, organised a lot of consultation and listened to the concerns of local people. Everyone is pleased that the building has achieved an excellent BREEAM rating, meaning that it is very environmentally friendly. It is also low-cost to run – it heats and ventilates itself – and has a small carbon footprint.

Comprising six floors, it has two lecture theatres seating 140 people each and 34 tutorial and teaching rooms. On the ground floor is a big exhibition space that soars up to the height of the building.

Plans for the second phase of the building are now under way. It will contain 600 student apartments, shops and a car park. A new academic building is also going up, as well as student union facilities. There are now 3,500 students and the campus is hitting its targets for growth. By 2014 it hopes to have doubled those numbers. Could it be that within the decade, the campus will be a University of Suffolk within its own right?

Changing places

Emily Lau, 21, is studying nursing at University Campus Suffolk. She began her degree at the further-education college, moving into the university when the new building went up.

"It's been great to see the changes. It's nice to be with people who are dedicated to education, and the new building is really inspiring. The town is changing, too. You see a lot more students and there are younger shops, and student bars. I use the new building a lot, for lectures and to study, because it's so comfortable."