On the Learning High Street
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.’