Bucking the trend

Buckinghamshire New University’s V-C, Professor Rebecca Bunting, maps the institution’s 125-year history

From humble beginnings in a building founded from the proceeds of an alcohol tax, to state-of-the-art facilities towering above the bustle of the town – we maybe called Buckinghamshire New University but there is nothing ‘new’ about our presence in High Wycombe. 

The University’s history is entwined with that of the town, and this academic year we celebrate our 125th anniversary. 

We were established originally as a Science and Art School which we owe, in part, to a highly unpopular tax imposed on beer and spirits. This was levied to provide a compensation fund for owners of drinking establishments which were forced to close when the drinks trade became regulated. 

The fund became so large that in 1880 Parliament decided to make it available for education purposes. Money from this education fund, Buckinghamshire County Council and local fundraising fairs provided the necessary finance to build the new institution at its original site in Frogmoor Gardens, High Wycombe.

After the First World War, the school played its part in rejuvenating the town as an official centre for the Ministry of Defence by creating links with local crafts, such as furniture-making, to help provide skills training for injured war veterans.

High Wycombe is still well-known for its furniture-making roots. Even the town’s football team, Wycombe Wanderers, is nicknamed The Chairboys. 

Educational demand grew over time and so did we – since our beginnings we have had 11 name changes and several different sites.

In 1925 we had outgrown our original building, so it was sold. We operated out of other town centre buildings until finally plans for our current site, which were put on hold during the Second World War, were approved in 1950. 

Then on 6 May 1963 the new facilities were officially opened by the Minister of Education, Sir Edward Boyle. 

Throughout the ’60s the number and variety of courses we offered expanded – from folk dancing to the meat trade, from TV repairs to nursing and social studies, as well as the staples of English, maths, science, furniture, engineering, building, and art and design.

We continued to be at the forefront of furniture design and the town’s education in the ’70s and were renamed as the Buckinghamshire College of Higher Education in 1975. We were awarded University College status by the government in 1999 and our application for full University status was approved by the Privy Council in 2007.

In the same year the University undertook a major redevelopment of the High Wycombe Campus – the front of the building was demolished and replaced with a large, state-of-the-art structure, known as The Gateway. It won a RIBA architectural award in 2010.

Today we are well-established, with locations in Wycombe, Uxbridge, Aylesbury and Great Missenden. Our students come from across the UK and the world, and when they graduate are sought after by employers in their chosen professions.

Throughout our history we have changed lives through employment-focused and skills-based teaching which enables students from diverse backgrounds to achieve their ambitions. We create the conditions for success and strive to be a catalyst in making a positive impact in our communities, and within the professional and creative sectors with which we work.

In February 2015, I was appointed as the new Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive Officer of Buckinghamshire New University. I was attracted to Bucks because of its focus on professional and creative subjects in teaching and research, and its commitment to student success. Almost every day a great story about the achievements of our staff, students and alumni comes across my desk and I am very keen to promote such excellent work in the wider community. 

Our students are highly motivated, creative and innovative and we are proud of their altruistic efforts. Last year, students amassed nearly 8,000 hours of volunteering.

But it’s not just our students who strive to be socially responsible, we as an organisation became a Stonewall Diversity Champion in 2012 and in 2016 were proud, along with Bucks Students’ Union, to be of one of the growing number of institutions to sign the Time to Change pledge to demonstrate our joint commitment to tackling the stigma and discrimination often faced by people with mental health issues. 

Some of our many achievements include the Guardian Teaching Excellence Award 2016, for our use of ‘real-life’ simulation with nursing and health students, being awarded Education Provider of the Year (post-registration) at the 2015 Student Nursing Times Awards and our partnership with the Independent Voices charity was recognised by Health Education England at an awards event celebrating excellence. Last year we also received a Gold Accreditation from People 1st for our aviation and pilot courses and a Silver Award under the government’s Defence Employer Recognition Scheme for our support to the Armed Services as a significant provider of HE to the Royal Navy, British Army and Air Force.

Research undertaken by staff and students has real impact. For example, we are involved in the WATERSPOUTT consortium, a water purification research project throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and other resource-poor countries, and most recently were proud that one of our graduate students, Corrine Ellsworth Beaumont, hit the headlines after her Know Your Lemons breast cancer awareness campaign went viral, which was part of her PhD at Bucks. Other examples of the impact of our innovation include a pressure vest developed by scientists at Bucks New University which is used to gauge crowd density at major events to warn event organisers of a build-up of pressure in specific areas in the audience.

We were delighted in November last year to be one of the first institutions to successfully secure project funding to develop degree apprenticeships. This is a good example of the value we place on our links with employers, both in terms of preparing students for employment and supporting economic growth and innovation. 

We are proud to have secured £1.3m to work in partnership with Bucks NHS Healthcare Trust, Oxford Academic Health Science Network Oxford, Bucks County Council and Chiltern Clinical Commissioning Group to create the Bucks Innovation Centre. 

This will support businesses in the development of innovative products focused on health and wellbeing, prevention and public health.

The innovations will include medical technology, virtual reality, 3D printing, robotics and wellbeing, spinal and rehabilitation products. 

We believe everyone who can benefit from a university education should have that opportunity. We play an important role in social mobility through our widening participation initiatives which encourage students from under-represented groups to aspire to higher education. We are introducing an exciting new mobile outreach programme which will enable us to showcase our courses at schools and colleges. The pop-up, immersive simulation room creates an interactive experience for pupils by projecting images and using sound to recreate scenarios in settings such as a hospital ward and police custody suite. 

It’s not just our buildings like The Gateway that are state-of-the-art. We also have green-screen facilities and a motion-capture system in our human performance lab, as well as recording studios and some of the best art and design spaces outside London.

Our vision at Bucks is to be a leading university for professional and creative education and applied research. This may be our 10th year as a university but we’ve been transforming lives through employment-focused and skills-based teaching for 125 years and long may that continue. 

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