Where to study? Students become tourists

by Alexandra den Heijer

If students could study anywhere, where would they go? My theory: they would select their learning environment the same way as tourists do: places with unique qualities – usually cultural heritage – and attractive public space, densely populated areas that encourage social encounters or at least give a sense of place. At the same time many universities in the world are adding new buildings to ‘could be anywhere’ locations – usually isolated campuses – with not much attention for public space or public transport to the city. Of course, researchers that need specialized labs that are only available on specific locations will still come, but more and more university activities become place-independent and flexible to accommodate. Paradoxically, more place independency makes (quality of) place more important. If students can go anywhere, why would they go to your campus or univer-city? Or why would they stay in your univer-city after graduation?

These questions were asked (and answered) in three sessions in the past week:
– June 14, 2013 – 3-hour session about Univer-city Bochum in Germany (see previous post Univer-city Bochum, Germany);
– June 18, 2013 – 2-hour meeting about a common agenda for Delft “Univer-City” with TU Delft’s executive board (College van Bestuur) and the mayor and aldermen of Delft (Burgemeester & Wethouders)
– June 21, 2013 – two 1-hour sessions about the importance of the city for universities at a VSNU retreat for executive boards of all 14 Dutch (research) universities

All three presentations of the past week can be found under DOWNLOADS.

Univer-city checklist, based on TU Delft research (Den Heijer, Curvelo Magdaniel, Bentinck, Tzovlas)

Univer-city checklist, based on TU Delft research (Den Heijer, Curvelo Magdaniel, Bentinck, Tzovlas)

Since the goals of cities (regions) and universities are increasingly similar – attracting and retaining knowledge workers for economic growth or (keeping/improving) their position in the global rankings – the strategic agendas are more and more alike. All the more reason to align them. The lack of resources to plan independently and ‘the brain drain already taking place’ are two more reasons to collaborate – before it is too late (and knowledge workers and their economic value have moved elsewhere).

During these discussions (after my lecture or introduction) the following comments were remarkable:

– in Bochum, Germany (a president of one of the “Hochschulen”): “A substantial group of my employees never visits the city of Bochum – they do not spend any euro here”
– student housing and – after that – alumni housing is crucial (one of the aldermen in Delft): “First house, first child: if you can keep the knowledge worker long enough, they will decide to settle and grow roots”
– in the end “place attachment” depends on alumni finding work – in the meantime: stimulating and accommodating entrepreneurial activities will be one of the collective tasks of university and municipality
– at the VSNU retreat both groups concluded that there are niche Master tracks (i.e. agriculture), world-famous (i.e. Ivy League) universities or unique research institutes (i.e. CERN) that will attract students and other knowledge workers despite their location or quality of buildings, but there are many, many more ‘same quality universities’ that offer similar Bachelor/Master/PhD programmes and compete on other qualities, including their physical (urban) setting.

Some facts from research:
EU Study Portals published research (2012) about “reasons to study abroad” – 25% mentioned academic quality, 24% city/culture/country;
– UK research (HEDQF 2012) showed that 1/3 of all students admit to have rejected a university based on the (poor quality of) the physical environment; that does not necessarily mean “buildings in bad condition”, but could also refer to an isolated campus or lack of social space.

Every discussion about the university of the future includes scenarios about increasingly ‘virtual’ universities (also in my own book). Many policy makers state: “Students in 2040 will be completely different: we can not predict how they will behave.” The physical campus will completely disappear? No, because one thing will not change (ever): biology. Let’s face the facts: students are not just attending our universities to learn, but also to meet people, to start relationships – sometimes for life.

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