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The town barred from having a university for 740 years that now has the most exciting university transformation project in decades

  • 4 January 2024
  • By Nick Petford, Robert Griggs and Terry Neville OBE

The Higher Education Policy Institute is today publishing a case study on the University of Northampton’s Waterside relocation, written by the Vice-Chancellor who led the transformation and two of his senior colleagues.

In University of Northampton: Waterside Story (HEPI Debate Paper 35), Nick Petford, Robert Griggs and Terry Neville OBE:

  • explain the background and philosophy underpinning one of the largest university relocation and change projects;
  • show how the project was funded and managed, as well as how digital transformation enabled a new learning and teaching delivery model; and
  • recommend lessons for educational establishments looking to implement large-scale change-management projects.

The Report includes a Foreword by Sir John Armitt CBE FREng FICE, Chair of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission, as well as a Preface by Kishwer Falkner, Baroness Falkner of Margravine and former Chancellor of the University of Northampton.

Professor Nick Petford, co-author of the report and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton, said:

What we achieved as a body of committed staff and students is quite remarkable: a radical transformation project that brought together two disparate campus locations into a single purpose-built entity, a new learning and teaching mode underpinned by state-of-the art IT systems with space to study and innovate in a creative low-carbon environment.

In a Foreword to the Report, Sir John Armitt CBE FREng FICE, Chair of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission, writes: 

The story of Northampton Waterside is one which reflects the many considerations and challenges which must be faced in such projects – and typically these pertain over at least a decade. Handling these issues effectively therefore requires clear governance and leadership. …

It is all so important because a university campus can have a very significant impact on a community. It can create growth, a sense of pride and wellbeing, a large number of jobs, social benefits and – of course – opportunities for life for its students. …

Northampton and its environs have been enriched with social and economic infrastructure for generations to come.

In the UK, we often focus on infrastructure schemes which struggle and occasionally fail. So the success of Northampton University Waterside is an absolute credit to Nick Petford and his team. It is my pleasure to congratulate everyone involved and to offer every good wish for the future of the University.

In a Preface, Baroness Kishwer Falkner and Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) writes:

As the inaugural Chancellor from 2008 to 2018, I was fortunate in that my tenure overlapped with the planning, design, commissioning and build stages of Waterside. From the outset I was struck by its aspiration and audacity, especially given the young age of the University. Many older, longer established institutions would have struggled with the scale and complexity of such an ambitious project and I watched with keen interest as the management team pushed ahead, often through what seemed impenetrable barriers, driven by a shared sense of vision and passion.

Government backing was an essential ingredient for success, but while other comparable large-scale UK infrastructure programmes struggled to get out of the blocks, the Northampton team surged ahead. In a climate where many construction projects seem bogged down by delay and escalating cost, the fact that Waterside was completed on time and on budget speaks volumes about the remarkable contribution from staff across the University and the quality of leadership from the Vice-Chancellor, senior team and Board.

In my role as Chancellor, I was able to contribute to the success of the project through advocacy and stakeholder engagement, at both local level with University supporters in local government and via the Northamptonshire lieutenancy, but also at the highest ministerial levels in the Cameron-Clegg Coalition Government.

I welcome this HEPI report as a guiding light for others who wish to embark on an ambitious programme of change, whether estates- related, digital or educational. Waterside has left a powerful and enduring legacy, and I believe the lessons learned are universal and translatable across the academy and beyond.

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, said:

The transformation of the University of Northampton is perhaps the single most exciting project in UK higher education since the turn of the millennium. While Northampton was officially banned from having a university for over seven centuries, from 1265 until 2005, today it boasts one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial institutions in the UK.

Yet almost no one outside of the higher education sector seems to know much about it. This fascinating new report shows how the project was delivered. It relied upon skilful and experienced leadership, was underwritten with support from Whitehall and local government and incorporated new technologies.

It is a positive story of transformation, which delivered a better teaching and learning environment and an improved student experience as well as a much lower carbon output. But the report also makes it clear that the project could not be repeated today, given the less propitious environment in which universities are operating, including changes like much higher interest rates for borrowing capital. That is a problem because universities can be transformative in terms of levelling up, filling in skills shortages and helping people meet their personal aspirations.

Notes for editors

  1. Professor Nick Petford DSc is former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton.
  1. Sir John Armitt is Chair of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission who recently published a long-term review on the need to modernise UK’s infrastructure in supporting climate action and economic growth.
  1. Baroness Falkner of Margravine is former Inaugural Chancellor of the University of Northampton and current chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.

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