On the Learning High Street

Oscar Webb

It emerged last month that the GP surgery on University College London’s Bloomsbury campus is to be closed. ‘UCL has informed us that it has no plans to renew our lease when it expires in 2014,’ Dr Clare Elliot, a partner at the Gower Place Practice, told me. ‘It does not wish to provide a space for the NHS practice on the UCL campus.’ The closure is part of the £500m ‘Bloomsbury Masterplan’, approved by UCL Council in July 2011, which will transform the central London campus over the next decade. (There's an abridged version online.) The provost of UCL, Malcolm Grant, describes the plan as a ‘coherent vision’ to ‘enable institutional growth’.

Libraries, teaching space, offices, laboratories and student and staff facilities will be moved, consolidated and, in some cases, lost. The offices of academic and administrative staff will be transformed from ‘cell-like environments’ to ‘den-like environments’: in other words, more people will have to share offices. ‘While the amount of space per student has declined across the sector in recent years,’ the masterplan says, ‘the ratio of office space per academic member of staff has stayed largely the same.’ At the moment, academics’ offices take up 21 per cent of total space; this is set to be reduced to around 10 per cent. Office space for UCL Estates, the Registry, finance and human resources, meanwhile, will expand from 5 per cent to 25 per cent.

As academics and students are crammed ever closer together, commercial projects will fill the spaces they vacate. Up to ten new cafés will open, on top of the six that already exist. The masterplanners aren’t shy of talking about ‘commercial opportunities’. The campus they want looks like a shopping centre. Almost every accessible ground floor space is glass-fronted in the plan. Malet Place will be turned into a ‘teaching and learning “high street”’. Retailers will be invited to set up shop in ‘under-used areas’.

The science library, currently housed in a large four-storey building, will be merged with the main library in the Wilkins Building. ‘Releasing and reconfiguring’ the building’s basement will apparently create enough space for the entire science collection and the tens of thousands of students who use it.

The history department will be moved out of the Georgian houses it currently occupies on Gordon Square into smaller premises over the road. The houses will be turned into luxury accommodation and a ‘social lounge’ for ‘visitors’ to the university.

UCL says that the masterplan is a ‘living document’, meaning not all of it will be implemented, but much of it is now being acted on. In September 2012, a senior lecturer in anthropology sent an email to students detailing UCL’s plans to transform the building that currently houses the anthropology, archaeology and classics departments. The ground floor would become a ‘student hub’, including a Starbucks. Offices, a lecture theatre, a common room and a small museum would be demolished. Appealing to students to occupy the space while the architects looked around, the anthropologist wrote: ‘as staff we find this whole prospect horrendous.’


  • 9 February 2013 at 1:33pm
    bimski says:
    Don't forget the whole of the Slade, which has two buildings in Bloomsbury including the 1871 building in the Main Quad, will be moved across to Stratford!

    This will make way for "public spaces" around the ground floor of the Quad. No idea how you get students to pay £9k pa and work in Stratford, Central London is an important factor in attracting students.

  • 9 February 2013 at 1:37pm
    bimski says:
    "At the moment, academics’ offices take up 21 per cent of total space; this is set to be reduced to around 10 per cent."

    So commercial spaces for Starbucks generates more income than leading research?

    "Office space for UCL Estates, the Registry, finance and human resources, meanwhile, will expand from 5 per cent to 25 per cent."

    Oh, the people implementing the masterplan...

  • 9 February 2013 at 6:10pm
    R Jay says:
    Why do people think that 'student hubs' are a good idea? The ground floor of another Russell Group university library has been turned into a student hub with a cafe and social areas for 'social learning'. This is the most horrendous university library I have ever visited. This student hub is just like a playground for 19-year-olds to play games that they did when they were ten.

    But then the customers are these students of the new generations, so perhaps universities feel obliged to meet their needs. The sad thing is that those who want to do serious work in these spaces just feel forced out.

  • 10 February 2013 at 12:49pm
    freddie22 says:
    "The closure is part of the £500m ‘Bloomsbury Masterplan’" - there is no evidence for this claim.

    A full draft of the Masterplan can be found here - - and the GP Surgery is not mentioned once.

    • 10 February 2013 at 4:28pm
      jm0ses says: @ freddie22
      That's not the full masterplan, just the publicly available one.

    • 10 February 2013 at 10:53pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ jm0ses
      Oscar writes for the UCL student magazine The Cheese Grater, which reported last week that it had seen more on the masterplan than is publicly available - I imagine he's going on that.

  • 10 February 2013 at 7:22pm
    streetsj says:
    I have this business idea for a new university. There will be lots of hubs and retail and public space. There will be grand and spacious offices for the admin (me) and none for academics or libraries. There will be no space for lecture rooms but we will have an amusement arcade and a casino. All worky stuff will be online - students can take whatever courses they can find online.
    Sounds like I better hurry up with implementation or UCL will beat me to it.

  • 11 February 2013 at 1:49am
    farthington says:
    Time to re-read Frank Parkin's The Mind and Body Shop.
    Then a joke, now the reality.
    The nightmare has arrived.
    Sydney University's Fisher Library (previously most substantial uni library in the SOuthern Hemisphere) has already been so converted - the vast open vistas have replaced the so-yesterday books.
    Paraphrasing Father Karl, History repeats itself, first as farce, second as tragedy.

  • 11 February 2013 at 10:50am
    LL says:
    Perhaps academic staff could also accommodate Starbucks outlets in their offices? 'Would you like a tall latte with that?'...What the idea of academics sharing offices spells to me is the end of one-to-one tutorials, among many other things. The individual time students are given has already been slashed (in some departments to tiny slots within an academic's two or four 'office hours' per week), and I suspect this will be used as an opportunity to do away with all individual contact, invaluable for helping students with essays and individual projects (as opposed to group work in seminars).

  • 11 February 2013 at 12:19pm
    grumpy_young_man says:
    What a pile of misguided and one-sided tosh. Oscar Webb so desperately wants to be 'subversive' (as he proudly states on his Facebook page) that he misses a few critical points to the argument here. Firstly, moving some departments is inevitable, as UCL is ever-changing and must adapt to current and projected usage. This isn't a bad thing, and this process happens at every university and always has. Secondly, the admin side of UCL is very lean compared to most other universities and, in many cases, understaffed. Universities don't run themselves. Finance, HR, et al are needed to do all the 'dirty work' for academics so they can get on with teaching and research. Thirdly, some spaces, such as Malet Place are in fact grim and not fit for purpose for a modern university. They need to be redeveloped. Commercial space helps with a funding gap that (I'm sorry to say) even the £9k a year students pay won't plug. The Masterplan is not the armageddon for UCL that Mr Webb makes it out to be. It's the outline of necessary changes that must be done in order for UCL to remain a world-class place of research, teaching and learning.

    • 13 February 2013 at 11:17am
      Oscar Webb says: @ grumpy_young_man
      The question is: should back of house services such as finance and HR occupy more space than academic staff? Of they shouldn't! Surely an institution no longer remains a university if its non-academic activity is given greater priority than its academic activity. You say "Universities don’t run themselves" but, just a thought, perhaps - to take the example in question - UCL would be far better run without intervention from an increasingly market driven senior management team.

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