Town AND gown; the perfect partnership

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester Professor Paul Boyle discussed the real benefits of studying in a great city

Research has shown that the attraction of a particular city or area is one of the most important factors considered by prospective students when deciding where to study.

Today’s students, perhaps more than previous generations, are keen to ensure that their chosen place of study offers good quality of life on and off campus, as well as high quality education. This includes important considerations such as employment and work experience opportunities, as well as being part of a lively and stimulating local community.

Arguably, until recently, the city of Leicester – once described by the late Sir Terry Wogan as Britain’s “lost city” – has not in itself been a big draw for students and scholars.

But in the space of just a year, its reputation and appeal has been transformed. The creative and delivery-focused approach of City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby is revamping the city infrastructure; the football team has come from nowhere to challenge for the Premiership title; and the discovery and reinterment of a medieval king, have all combined to make Leicester a compelling place in what Chancellor George Osborne calls the “Midlands Engine”. Leicester is finally putting itself firmly on the map – in the UK and abroad.

The National Space Centre; and the late Sir Terry Wogan, who received an honorary degree from Leicester in 2010

Other examples of the city’s rising status include recent studies showing Leicester’s growing economic power and reputation as a ‘start-up capital’. Leicester was recognised by the UK Growth Dashboard in June 2015 as having the fastest business growth rate outside of London. It was ranked third in Property Week’s Hot 100 UK retail locations late last year. The Enterprise Research Centre estimates Leicester is on a par with London for fast-growing SMEs. And the Association of Accounting Technicians has ranked Leicester as the third best city in the UK to start up a business. Finally, HSBC Research has identified Leicester as the most affordable destination in Britain for first-year students.

Leicester was recognised by the UK Growth Dashboard in June 2015 as having the fastest business growth rate outside of London

Leicester has the most multi-cultural population of any UK city outside of London, and this diversity is a strength that adds to the appeal of the city and boosts its economic significance.

Of course, a major part of this success story also rests with the University. Through its various activities, the University contributes around three-quarters of a billion pounds to the local economy each year.

In addition, the two national visitor centres located in Leicester are linked to the University’s work. The National Space Centre, which attracts more than a quarter of a million visitors each year, was inspired by our world-class space and earth observation research.

The approaching anniversary of the reinterment of Richard III’s remains reminds us of the University’s central role in the discovery, which independent research has calculated has added almost £60m to the local economy and created up to 1,000 new jobs.

The ceremony marking the departure of Richard III’s coffin from campus

In addition, the University has invested over £1m into the Attenborough Arts Centre (recently opened by Sir David Attenborough) and is now actively discussing with the City Mayor the creation of a new Education Quarter in the city, as well as ambitious plans for a new National Space Park which will become a research, innovation and teaching hub to support the UK’s ability to capture and develop the economic growth opportunity from space data and space engineering.

Wide angle view up Horsefair Street (photo credit: Ian Davis, Leicester City Council) 

When we launched the University of Leicester’s new strategic plan in September last year we identified our institution as being part of a new ‘distinctive elite’ in UK higher education. What we meant was that Leicester will stand out from the crowd by being more adventurous, more ambitious and more insistent on the value of its distinctive qualities. Needless to say, it helps a lot to be located in a city that is realising similar aspirations. The more we can do to contribute to that, through the pursuit of common goals, the better.

Professor Paul Boyle is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester

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