Why it’s good for York to be a university city

Can you imagine life in York today without our 29,000 university students? Much quieter, no doubt; but surely poorer for it.

But how many of us really know and have meaningful contact with our student population? Do we make the best of our universities? Do we understand their history and ambitions?

It might seem incredible today, but York had to fight incredibly hard after the Second World War to get its first university. It was finally founded in Heslington in 1963, but getting it was a story of frustration that goes as far back as 1617, when an unsuccessful petition was made to James I. There were several other failed attempts made over subsequent centuries.

When it did finally arrive in 1963, York’s new university was tiny, with only 230 students and 28 members of staff. They joined York’s adult-education provision offered by what was then called St. John’s College, a teacher-training college in the city with around 500 students. York St. John became a university itself in 2005/06 when it was granted degree-award capabilities.

The city’s two universities have since gone from strength to strength. The University of York is currently ranked 10th in the Times Higher Education’s national rankings for research and York St John’s recently scored joint 21st for student satisfaction.

Hundreds of thousands of York graduates continue to feel a strong affection for the city, often leading them to act as informal ‘ambassadors’ for York wherever their careers and lives take them.

But graduate retention is also a hugely important aspect for modern universities – to have opportunities to stay in York and develop careers, businesses and families here, and lay down long-term roots in the city.

Such retention brings cultural, social, and economic rigour, new ideas and experiences that help shape the city. Recent graduates have been pioneers in the foundation of the Aesthetica Short Film Festival and Art Prize, and SPARK – just a few of the city’s recent cultural successes.

Almost one in seven of us presently living in York is a higher-education student. But despite the size of the city’s student body, how well do the rest of us know the campuses at Heslington and Lord Mayor’s Walk? Both are fascinating, with a rich history of development and design excellence.

York’s largest listed park and garden is the original campus (now called ‘Campus West’) at Heslington. It incorporates the parkland of Heslington Hall and is built around a purpose-designed lake.

But for most students, the campus is synonymous with the CLASP prefabricated system of beige buildings, ‘the ramp’ covered walkway, the Brutalist ‘spaceship’-esque listed Central Hall,… and of course the capricious geese at the lake. It is a place unique within York, but also – and something increasingly difficult to find in the face of generic modern university architecture in the UK – distinctly York’s.

York St. John dates to 1841, with the chapel on to Lord Mayor’s Walk campus the first building to be completed in 1851. Since 2008, the campus has received 4 York Design Awards – the latest coming this July for its inventive, new Creative Center building by architects Tate+Co. Well worth a look!

But how many of us frequent the universities and make the most of their green spaces, their cafes and other amenities, go to marvel at their amazing architecture and public art?

Why do these open access sites so often feel out of bounds for many of York’s non-students?

Does the campus design or the collections of buildings that are so homely and memorable for some, seem alien for many of us?

The University of York is planning a huge, new student center designed by architects ADP and O’Donnell + Tuomey as part of its Campus West development plan.

For its student centre, the iconic rectangular 1960s CLASP building blocks look to be upgraded as twenty-first century triangles; a second ‘spaceship’ set to arrive.

This new Campus West masterplan offers to generate public interest from across the city and give a great reason to visit. But the CLASP buildings have given the campus identity as a shared experience for all its alumni – even if un-York-like to many of us. Any successful new regeneration plan must build on the unique form, rationale and vibe of the original 1960s campus.

These exciting new chapters for our Universities a perfect opportunity to stir our present curiosity and encourage us to visit and make the most of these amazing assets, so as to help better embed the important role they play in our city.

Dr Duncan Marks is the Civic Society Manager at York Civic Trust

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