You might think that having responsibilities for Estates would mean ‘bricks and mortar’ and the physical side of university life. Talking to Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Derek Godfrey at Buckinghamshire New University, shows this is far from the case. Listening to him you can see how his decisions are inspired by a vision of how to optimise student learning and the student experience.
“We want our students to experience real-world requirements from day one and the same conditions they will find when they apply their skills in the workplace.” This makes sense considering one of the big problems in learning is transfer of skills to the workplace and ensuring that, for example, the University’s nursing skills labs, used by students studying a range of courses in its Faculty of Society & Health, match the equipment found in the health sector.
“Bucks New University’s mission is to educate people for a changing world and we need to predict the shape of that world and translate it to our buildings,” says Prof. Godfrey, whose responsibilities also include IT, Human Resources and Finance. Part of that vision is understanding how people learn and translating that into the design of learning spaces.
Prof. Godfrey adds: “The days of lecture rooms are numbered. They presume a model of an academic transmitting to students who are essentially just in receiving mode. Now, when content can be accessed online, the teaching experience should be one of establishing students’ ability to use and evaluate information and apply skills as part of a team.”
Prof. Godfrey cites with admiration the work at Coventry University, under the guidance of Ian Dunn, its Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience, in moving away from fixed seating in classrooms. Instead, the furniture is moveable and digital screens placed all around the room ensure that students work in groups and can see the screen from wherever they happen to be.
And libraries? According to Prof. Godfrey: “Libraries have had to adapt with the times and our library has been designed as a complete learning environment with books as just a part of that. In a few years, students will access resources mainly through tablets and phones and we have to take that into consideration in our library provision.”
The clarity of his vision is striking, particularly when you think of the large investments which will ride on an ability to predict the future. “We can fundamentally change the experience of staff and students through the environment that we create,” says Prof. Godfrey. He illustrated the point further by pointing out that the way members of the public perceive the University has been altered by the fact that it has provided a ‘campus walkway’ at its High Wycombe Campus through which people can walk from Wycombe Hospital to the town’s main shopping area, passing through its site. He even talks of shaping social relationships and the importance of creating a new hub for students where they can ‘network and meet their friends’.
The drive to satisfy students is reflected in a move to keep the University’s High Wycombe Campus open 24/7. Soundings were taken among students about the initiative and following a successful trial (where some students used the library at 2am!) budgetry approval has been granted for it to be open round-the-clock from September. “We are ahead of the game in doing this,” offered Prof. Godfrey. “It is part of doing all we can to maximise the learning experience.”
Prof. Godfrey’s conviction is palpable and it is not difficult to share his vision of the Estates plan in ‘driving the academic requirements’. It is only the car parking element of his portfolio that draws less enthusiasm. “It is one of those things where you are never going to win – it’s always going to be contentious.” So, although he may have drawn the short straw in his responsibilities for parking, Prof. Godfrey is driving forward the learning experience through his direction of Estates.