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WEEKEND READING: Bricks and moolah: Buildings, money and the civic university

  • 19 August 2023
  • By William Whyte
  • This blog was kindly authored for the HEPI 20th Anniversary Collection by William Whyte, Professor of Social and Architectural History at St John’s College, Oxford.
  • In August, we are running chapters from the Anniversary Collection as a series of blogs. This piece is the eleventh chapter from that collection.

Twelfth-century Northampton was one of the intellectual powerhouses of England. Fuelled by the wealth of the town and a long-standing tradition of teaching, it was by the 1180s well on its way to becoming the first serious university in the country.1 It was so attractive that scholars fleeing problems in other places often sought sanctuary there. Indeed, that was Northampton’s undoing. In 1265, the nascent university was crushed to prevent it from luring in anyone else from Oxford. Not until 2005 would Northampton finally get its university and not for another 13 years would the university get its own purpose-built campus. On its opening in September 2018, the Northampton Chronicle announced that this was ‘The week Northampton became a “student town”’.2 It was a status that had been a long time coming.

An ambitious piece of urban regeneration, the university’s buildings include student accommodation, a six-storey ‘Learning Hub’, and a five-storey ‘Creative Hub’. New bridges and picturesque footpaths connect the campus to the surrounding area. As a result, the university now features as a key part of the Great Northampton Run, which has been designed ‘to take in all that is great about the town’.3 At its opening, the ViceChancellor, Nick Petford, set out his ambitions for the project:

  Our civic approach to innovation, impactful research and the economic benefits this brings, will support Northampton more widely to become a more attractive place in drawing talented and skilled young people to study and, importantly, stay after they graduate.4

Ostensibly little more than a generic example of vice-chancellarial rhetoric, this was in fact a telling comment: at one and the same time articulating the belief that buildings attract students and positioning Northampton within the civic university tradition.

Such ambition came at a cost. Northampton’s new campus amounted to an investment of £330 million. A considerable sum for any institution, this represented a huge outlay for a university whose annual income was a third of that. What made it possible was debt: a £231 million bond issue, underwritten by the Treasury; and a further £60 million from the public works loan board.5

Northampton is undeniably unusual in taking quite so long to acquire a university, then in building quite so boldly and so quickly thereafter. But the themes that characterise its recent development are far from atypical. Ever bigger buildings and ever more talk of civic responsibility have become characteristic features of Britain’s higher education sector.

It is not a purely insular development either. Universities across the globe have invested billions in new buildings, competing with one another to recruit and borrowing extensively to pay for such investment. They have been engaged in what one expert commentator described in 2018 as an architectural ‘arms race’: ‘If everyone else is creating bigger, shinier, high-quality, more innovative facilities,’ he concludes, ‘it’s hard not to get involved as well’.6

Property development has contributed to a ‘financialisation’ of higher education even in those jurisdictions, like the Netherlands, where the idea of a publicly-financed university remains dominant.7 In England, annual expenditure on capital projects rose to an estimated £4.6 billion in the financial year 2021/22.8 Not entirely coincidentally, the percentage of providers with an in-year deficit rose from 5% in 2016 to 32% five years later.9

The Vice-Chancellor’s use of the word ‘civic’ is also typical. In the last two decades, the idea of the civic university has made a remarkable recovery.10 In the last three years, more than 100 providers – including Northampton – have joined the Civic University Network.11 As part of this, institutions with precisely no previous connection to that tradition have rebranded themselves. King’s College London (KCL), for instance, announcing its new identity in 2017 as ‘A civic university at the heart of London’.12 We seem, as KCL’s Vice-President Deborah Bull puts it, to be living through a ‘civic university moment’.13

Nor is Northampton the only provider to express these ideals in architecture. At Kingston, a signature, Stirling-prize-winning development called the Town House provides an even bolder example. An eye-catching concrete frame and a succession of open-plan spaces, it is designed to be shared with the community and to provide a ‘much needed civic presence’.14 Announcing its triumph in the pan-European Mies Award for architecture, the jury declared that:

  This is the first time that a university building wins the architecture prize and it shows that there is a need for public educational projects with the quality of this one, which dignifies people’s lives through education and being together and gives the same educational possibilities to everybody.15

Here was a civic university building indeed.

Financialisation seems at first sight to sit uneasily with civic idealism. It can appear paradoxical, even contradictory. It certainly marks a distinctive break with the past – especially for institutions like Kingston and Northampton, which were, within living memory, effectively controlled – and funded – by local government. It also distinguishes this moment from the period in which the first civic universities were founded. They were, of course, products of local patriotism and private finance. But they were highly averse to borrowing. In 1925, the Council of the University of Manchester was entirely representative in concluding that its ‘first duty’ was to eliminate any debt.16

So how should one explain this new age? How can we account for both financialisation and the revival of the civic university? How should we reconcile Kingston’s open-to-all Town House with its near simultaneous decision to issue a £90 million bond to pay for student accommodation?17

In part, of course, it is a rhetorical ploy. Universities currently face severe criticism for the cost of their degrees, for their supposed hostility to free speech, and for their apparent encouragement of all things ‘woke’. What the Daily Mail cheerfully describes as a ‘dark shadow’ has fallen – and providers need to offer some light.18 In his foreword to the final report of the Civic University Commission in 2019, Lord Kerslake was quite clear. Not only do these institutions ‘need all the friends that they can get’; ‘The public’ also ‘needs to understand better the specific benefits that universities can bring.’19 Emphasising their civic contribution is designed to do just that.

But it is also obviously true that this massive inflow of private finance has made universities more important for their local communities. Underwritten by bonds or developed in partnership with the private sector, student accommodation has grown in scale and in significance. With over 30,000 new units added annually to the university estate, by 2020 there were as many as 650,000 purpose-built student bedrooms in Britain, more than half of them provided by property companies. Coupled with massive investment in academic facilities, the impact of this expansion on towns and cities is hard to deny.20

Still more, as local government has experienced cutbacks and as austerity has challenged public services, private finance has left universities in a privileged position. Conceived as ‘anchor institutions’, they are expected to offer ‘place-based leadership’.21 In this respect, the ‘Preston Model’, in which the University of Central Lancashire has prioritised local procurement has proved highly influential.22

Yet the extent to which higher education providers are taking on roles previously associated with other authorities goes well beyond this. In Oxford – hardly everyone’s idea of a civic university – a £4 billion joint venture with Legal and General is designed not least to resolve a local housing crisis by providing 2,000 new homes, with what is described as ‘a mix of affordable tenures and subsidised key worker accommodation’.23This financialised version of the civic university is, however, inherently unstable – and the tensions are not hard to discern. At Kingston, it seems, the Town House has proved all too successful in its ambition to ‘invite the community in’.24 During summer term, access to study facilities is now confined to members of the university.25 All this accommodation also increasingly begs the question of affordability for students, two-thirds of whom struggle to pay rising rents in these shiny buildings – especially as both university and private halls of residence are invariably more expensive than renting a room from a private landlord.26A return to the past is not possible. The original civic universities were founded as an expression of local success rather than as a means of regenerating leftbehind cities. They were socially and intellectually exclusive – and designed to be so. Describing the new buildings for the University of Wales at Cardiff in 1909, the architect was clear that they were ‘private property … from which the public can at will be wholly excluded, save for a narrow peep through iron screens just to whet the appetites’.27

The contemporary civic university is a very different beast indeed. Intended to be inclusive, open, collaborative: in all sorts of ways it offers a real and powerful challenge to the traditional model of higher education as it has evolved in Britain. That is something enabled by private finance; but also something potentially threatened by it too. Whether universities can retain their commitment to change while also remaining dependent on large-scale loans is an interesting question, especially in an era in which interest rates are rising, inflation is soaring and the sums brought in by student fees inexorably decline in real terms.

Certainly, there are some warning signs. At Northampton, the loan for the new campus obliges a university with an annual income of £100 million to find £10 million every year to service the debt. In 2020, the result was a £15.1 million deficit and sanctions from the Treasury as cash reserves fell below the level that would enable repayment.28 A year later, after much pain, the University was able to report a modest annual surplus; but it remained the most indebted provider in the country, with a borrowing rate of more than 200% of its income.29

Built on previously-contaminated land, to fulfil a civic ideal and to realise the 800-year old dream of a university in Northampton, Waterside Campus represents a triumph of regeneration and, above all, of hope. The necessity for Britain’s universities to regenerate both themselves and their communities is clear and becoming ever more pressing. The need for hope is perhaps greater still.


  1. HG Richardson, ‘The Schools of Northampton in the Twelfth Century’, English Historical Review, 56, 1941, pp. 595-605
  2. ‘The week Northampton became a “student town” as thousands filed into new Waterside campus’, Northampton Chronicle, 28 September 2018
  3. ‘Full details of the redesigned route for the Great Northampton Run’, Northampton Chronicle, 1 February 2023. https://www.
  4. ‘The week Northampton became a ‘student town’ as thousands filed into new Waterside campus’, Northampton Chronicle, 27 September 2018
  5. Richard Adams, ‘Treasury backs Northampton University’s campus project’, Guardian, 14 November 2014 education/2014/nov/14/treasury-northampton-university-loan-campus
  6. David Matthews, ‘The borrowers: will universities’ debts pay off?’, Times Higher Education, 5 April 2018
  7. Ewald Engelen, Rodrigo Fernandez, and Reijer Hendrikse, ‘How Finance Penetrates its Other: A Cautionary Tale on the Financialization of a Dutch University’, Antipode, vol.46 no.4, 2014, pp.1072-1091 anti.12086
  8. Office for Students, Financial Sustainability of Higher Education providers in England 2022 Update, p.21 https://www.officeforstudents.
  9. Public Accounts Committee, Financial Sustainability of the Higher Education Sector in England, 2022, p.8 https://committees.parliament. uk/publications/22593/documents/166272/default/
  10. William Whyte, Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities, 2015, pp.321-337
  13. Deborah Bull, ‘What does it mean to be a 21st-Century civic university?’, 18 June 2018
  14. Grafton Architects, quoted in kignston-university-town-house-grafton-architects
  15. Architects’ Journal    , 27 April 2022 news/graftons-kingston-townhouse-wins-mies-award-for-best-newbuilding-in-europe
  16. Alec B Robertson and Colin Lees, ‘The University of Manchester, 191850: New Approaches and Changing Perspectives’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Vol.84 nos.1-2, 2002, p.88
  17. Nick Biring, ‘TradeRisks arrange £90m senior guaranteed bonds for PBSA at Kingston University’, 13 August 2020
  18. Connor Stringer, ‘Half of our universities peddle their woke agenda to students’, Daily Mail, 15 January 2023 news/article-11638389/Half-universities-peddle-woke-agendastudents.html
  19. Civic University Commission, Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between universities and their places, 2019, p.4
  20. William Whyte, Somewhere to Live: Why British Students Study Away From Home – And Why It Matters, HEPI Report121, 2019, pp.32-33
  21. David Marlow, Louise Kempton and Mark Tewdwr-Jones,               Inclusive Future Growth in England’s Cities and Regions, 2019 https://eprints.ncl.
  22. Centre for Local Economic Strategies, How We Built Community Wealth in Preston, 2019
  23. IPE Staff, ‘Legal & General to develop science district with Oxford University’, IPE Real Assets, 19 July 2021 news/legal-and-general-to-develop-science-district-with-oxforduniversity/10054083.article#:~:text=Legal%20%26%20General%20 is%20developing%20a,an%20adjacent%2014%2Dhectare%20site
  24. Rowan Moore, ‘Town House, Kingston University review – socialbility  on a grand scale, Guardian, 25 January 2020 https://www.
  25. town-house-2020/
  26. National Student Accommodation Survey 2023
  27. WD Caröe, ‘The New College Buildings’, Cap and Gown 7, 1909-10, pp.23-26 and pp.23-24
  28. University of Northampton,    Annual Report 2020 2021 https://www. and Sarah Ward, ‘University of Northampton feels the financial pinch with £16m deficit revealed in annual accounts’, Northamptonshire Telegraph, 22 January 2020
  29. HESA

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1 comment

  1. Alice Prochaska says:

    This is a great article from someone who really knows bout university building. It deserves to be brought to wider attention, at a time when, as the author implies, there is much uninformed and unreflective criticism of “wokeness” and not nearly enough coverage of what universities are actually contributing to their communities. Bravo for Northampton, too!

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