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The hard work starts when term ends, as universities use their facilities to increase earnings and build ties with the community

By Paul Dimery 

Whenever you hearAlice Cooper spitting out those immortal words ‘School’s out for summer’, your mind conjures up images of students darting triumphantly towards the school gates as they look forward to a few weeks of high jinks. Close behind them, the staff tut to themselves and batten down the hatches before trundling off in their Morris Minors for a somewhat more genteel break.

It’s a lovely idea but a little wide of the mark. OK, so the first part may be true (obviously, we’re hoping it isn’t, and that students spend their inter-semester periods with their heads buried deep in their text books). But the notion of staff shutting up shop when term-time ends is becoming increasingly outdated. In these uncompromising economic climes, schools, colleges and universities must do everything they can to maximise their revenue – and that means there’s no time to rest on one’s laurels. Many institutions are using the absence of their students as an opportunity to lease out their facilities and, where possible, build a better relationship with their local community.

Take Leeds Metropolitan University, which is embarking on a whole host of exciting initiatives this summer to increase its income while boosting its image. With the Grand Depart of the Tour de France having taken place in the city this year, the University capitalised by renting out rooms in one of its student accommodations to cycling fans. On top of this, it has united with the University of Leeds to win the right to host the annual Teach First Summer Institute residential teacher-training event for two weeks in July and August. The programme will see around 3,000 students using the two universities’ facilities – and as well as boosting the coffers of the establishments themselves, it will bring an estimated £5.5m worth of revenue into the city. Said Lurene Joseph, Chief Executive of Leeds and Partners – a company that’s responsible for attracting inward investment into the city: “Teach First’s decision to come to Leeds is great news for the universities and wider Leeds economy. More than 3,000 people visiting the city will be a tremendous boost to our retail, cultural, and food and drink sectors.”

And Leeds Metropolitan’s extra-curricular activities don’t end there. It runs an annual summer school that welcomes more than 250 students from Italy and Spain each year – a move that can only raise the University’s profile abroad. And last year, it even hosted a party for local senior citizens, enhancing its reputation as a college with a conscience.

Bath Spa University regularly makes the news for its forward-thinking schemes and collaborations with businesses in the local area (in June of this year it announced a new cultural partnership with Bath Theatre Royal that will see its students given the opportunity to audition and perform in professional productions, among other benefits). So it’s no surprise that it’s as proactive as anybody when it comes to fulfilling its earning potential after the end-of-term bell sounds.

“Our world-class Sports Training Village plays host to a number of community events and wider initiatives, including the 2013 Special Olympics,” Press and PR Officer Andy Dunne tells University Business. “We also have a major new Centre for the Arts, due to open in 2015, which will massively benefit the local community. And we use on-campus student accommodation for academic and other conferences.”

Exeter is another university that made the news recently, after actor David Tennant was spotted on the campus, where he was filming a new series of the ITV show Broadchurch. “We play a positive and pivotal role in the city of Exeter and the South West region in general,” explained Liz French, Head of Media Relations. “We place great importance on upholding our strong relationship with the local community, and organise a wide range of initiatives and events throughout the course of the year for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone, including staff, students and local residents. These include public events such as the Chinese New Year celebrations, and organising a host of seminars and lectures by visiting experts at both our Streatham Campus in Exeter, and our Penryn Campus in Cornwall.”

“On top of this, the Event Exeter team offers an impressive array of unique conference, meeting and event venues that can cater for any event type, from large and small residential conferences, through gala dinners and exhibitions, to drinks receptions – we are also one of the most popular wedding venues in Exeter. Any surpluses generated through the use of the University’s estate for events is reinvested into our campuses to further enhance the student, staff and visitor experience.”

As well as those already mentioned, there are other benefits to initiatives such as these. For one thing, hosting events on a large scale can’t be achieved without manpower – and that means the creation of jobs. This summer, the University of Kent will host over 700 events and groups, and sell over 145,000 bed-nights. That’s a considerable undertaking, and one that will require catering and hospitality staff, chambermaids, minibus drivers and various other workers.

“The internal academic conference market has seen major growth in the last two years, and we’ve responded to this in a positive manner,” enthused Kevin Stuckey, Head of Residences and Conference Services. “The business generated by our conference office during vacation periods creates employment for some 250 full-time staff and a further 500 casual employees. Most of these are our own students seeking employment to help fund their time here.”

The University is situated in the historic city of Canterbury, a popular destination for both British and international tourists. With such an influx of visitors every summer, the local guest houses struggle to cope with the demand – and for the University of Kent, that was an opportunity too good to miss. “We are becoming increasingly popular as B&B accommodation, and particularly our newest double rooms, which are similar in standard to the popular budget hotel chains,” continues Stuckey. “Our current guest-review rating on www.booking.com is 8.1 – that’s higher than many hotels.”

Another benefit to being such a forward-thinking university – and one that plays an integral role within its community – is that it might just encourage more people to study there. This is something that the University of Texas at Austin has discovered after opening its doors during the summer months to students from across the state, who take part in everything from ballet camp to educational programmes.

“The University of Texas at Austin is in the heart of Texas, both physically and emotionally,” elaborates Joshua Cook, Assistant Director of Communications. “Inviting so many people to come onto campus and take part in the UT Austin experience only makes us all stronger. We find that many children and teenagers who attend events or camps during the summer catch the Longhorns’ spirit [the Longhorns is a coloquial name given to the University, and in particular its sporting teams]. That gets them more excited about attending our events and potentially going to college here. Overall, it often leads to a life-long support of the University.”

In all of these cases, there’s a real sense of community spirit at work, with strong relationships being built between the universities and their local populace. And the universities’ public image can only be enhanced yet further if they use local businesses to help cater for their events – something the University of Texas at Austin does as a matter of principle.

“Between our residence halls and the historic Texas Union, we offer tens of thousands of square feet of meeting space for professional organisations,” continues Joshua Cook.

“All of those groups are supported by our world-class catering and dining facilities, which source an increasing amount of their produce from right here in central Texas.”
If all of that sounds like a daunting challenge and has you dreaming of a sandy beach in Honolulu, bear in mind that the extent to which you exploit your facilities is in your own hands. Even the smallest venture – the leasing of a sports hall or the letting of a few rooms to exchange students – can pay dividends. The choice is yours: school’s out or cash in.

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