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Oxford 25: Part 1

Oxford 25: Part 1

Monday 14.09.15

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Luke Hughes

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To mark 25 years designing for the university Luke Hughes reflects on how the requirements for Oxford colleges has changed

‘How much is this going to cost?’ said Clifford Webb, then Bursar of Merton College, when we began to discuss designing and making furniture for a 96-bed graduate accommodation block in 1991. ‘Somewhere between £150k and £250k; much depends on the specification’, I replied. ‘Well’, he said, ‘the last time the college did a project like this was in 1938 and I’ve had virtually no maintenance issues with the furniture there ever since; it’s saved the college a fortune in annual repairs and replacements. If you can design something that will do the same for the college over next 50 years, I don’t mind spending £250k. Not a penny more, mind’.

Thus began one of our earliest Oxford projects. Others in the early 90s included St Cross, the Institute for Hebrew Studies, Christ Church, University and Trinity Colleges. Since then, we have now completed well over 300 projects in Oxford and Cambridge, including those for more than 50 of the 68 colleges in the two universities.

One college has now appointed its sixth bursar since those early days and only one (Elizabeth Crawford, at University College) was still in post this year; she retired at the end of July after 29 years. So, as collective bursarial memory fades, it may be interesting to look back a little at some of the influences for change.

Brasenose College’s Medieval Kitchen with Athena folding tables and Newnham stacking chairs

The commissioning of Merton’s graduate building reflected something of the political climate in 1991. The impact on education of Mrs Thatcher’s enthusiasm for privatization was rife; former polytechnics were scrambling to justify their new university status whilst government funding to Oxbridge was radically and systematically reduced. Student fee income, especially from foreign graduates, became a key ingredient in balancing college books. Indeed, attracting graduates made sound commercial sense in other ways. Unlike undergraduates, with their 8-week terms, graduates are resident all year round so it is easier to spread the running costs over 52 weeks rather than merely 24. Further, the churn on the building, each time undergraduates move their gear in and out, is greatly reduced.

New College common room with Fitzroy armchairs and sofas

Since then, even the undergraduates now have to pay fees and they (and their fee-paying parents) have become both more discerning and demanding. Elizabeth Crawford says that, ever since the college started to use Google Analytics, they have learned that the single most-visited page on the college website is the one connected with the standards of accommodation. Indeed, through monitoring other social media, the colleges now know that that this is by far the biggest preoccupation of students, far greater than their curiosity about college performance in the league tables or the quality and qualifications of the teaching staff. Similar patterns have evolved in the USA (where we have now completed several large projects for Harvard and Yale). There, students give as reasons for rejecting their first offers from universities poor residential facilities (41%) and poor ‘majors’ (i.e. libraries, dining halls, common rooms etc. 40%). 

Butterfield chairs in Keble College library

In the early 90s, city planners in both Oxford and Cambridge appeared to be keen to free up housing stock from students who tended to disappear during vacations. Consequently they began to relax planning guidelines as a way to encourage colleges to squeeze more onto their existing sites.  This coincided with a general feeling amongst the colleges that it might be desirable to bring the students, especially the graduates on whose fees they increasingly depended, into college, not least to feel more cherished and part of their respective communities.

Fiscal changes were another catalyst for change. The Business Expansion Scheme (intended to encourage the private funding of entrepreneurial start-ups) exempted investors from Capital Gains Tax and reduced liability to income tax in the year of the investment. Some financial conjuror devised qualifying schemes with the aim of funding the capital needed to get many new college buildings off the ground – not at all what the Chancellor had intended and he soon clamped down on that but not before some colleges had benefitted substantially. Similarly, the introduction of Gift Aid to encourage charitable giving leant some impetus to other fund raising schemes. Consequently, the old days when a few quiet words by a well-connected professor to a potential donor gave way to the emergence of development directors (and supporting staff). In Cambridge, the numbers of these almost tripled between 1999 and 2010, from 57 to 142.

Wolfson dining room with folding tables

The pursuit of the lucrative conference trade began to spawn new, professional catering and conference departments; dining halls began to be turned into ‘profit centers’ and en-suite accommodation was seen as essential in attracting the commercial users. Indeed, the pursuit of the conference trade, both from visiting students and commercial organizations, began to have a direct bearing on furnishings in dining halls, meeting rooms, college (rather than university) lecture theatres.

The recession of the early 1990s threw all this into particularly sharp relief when investment income from the stock market collapsed; colleges were forced to look much more seriously about balancing budgets in other ways. Inevitably, they started to sweat their other assets – the existing buildings.  Since most are listed, there is not much that can be altered in the building without incurring heavy fees and disruption. By contrast changing the furniture could make all the difference with minimal disruption.

Read Part 2 here