The “dreaming spires” of Oxford University that Matthew Arnold romanticised in 1865 still have a powerful grip on our image of the university. Nevertheless, the university town is part of the past. A key reason for this is the expense of developing facilities on a confined site, particularly in a heritage setting.
The new Beecroft physics building at Oxford is ten storeys high but five are below ground because of government-imposed height restrictions. Unfortunately, this configuration requires a large percentage of floor space to be devoted to stairs, lifts and ventilation ducts. Although the building costs about £5,500 (A$9,840) per square metre of gross floor area, the cost per usable square metre is an eye-watering £15,000. That’s about double the going rate for this type of building on a large-area campus.
The new Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge will cost £300 million for similar reasons.
Expansive campuses dominate overseas
In the 1970s, the University of Heidelberg moved from its site in the town of Heidelberg to a new 112-hectare campus on the north bank of the Neckar River. This enabled the university to develop new space, particularly laboratory space, at economical cost. In the decade after 2007, Heidelberg rose from between 51st and 75th in Science on the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) to 39th. Oxford slipped from tenth to 13th and Cambridge from fourth to seventh.
Of the No. 1 universities in the 54 subjects tracked by the ARWU, including humanities subjects, 84% occupy large campuses of 50 hectares or more.
This is the second of two articles on the past and future of the university campus.
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