Universities are in a building frenzy, but who is actually impressed?

People say “shiny” new university buildings like it’s a bad thing. What would be an improvement? A matt finish? No doubt that could be arranged too, if your pockets are deep enough. But it’s not only the depth of the pockets that worries the critics. It’s also the shallowness of the aspiration. Shiny is a metaphor for superficiality; all about surfaces and appearances. It behoves me as a philosopher to ask: what is the underlying reality? Why have UK universities spent so much on building in recent years, and what will the consequences be?

The catalyst for change was the 1997 Dearing report, which recommended a new government funding stream to reverse years of cutbacks to capital investment and maintenance. First, the joint infrastructure fund (JIF), a £750m partnership between the government and the Wellcome Trust, followed by several iterations of the science research infrastructure fund (SRIF). Universities had to bid for JIF, and, while SRIF was allocated by formula, the conditions gave the government some limited measure of control. These schemes funded new buildings primarily for science research and teaching around the country.

SRIF came to an end with the introduction of tuition fees, and universities had to fund their own capital development, often with external loans. Vice-chancellors knew that this meant the £9,000 fee came, in effect, with several deductions, but kept the point rather muted, preferring not to rock the boat that had finally come in. Even less noticed is that it also gave universities the freedom to spend money as they thought best, without government oversight. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed in relation to the people of England and freedom to vote, how they use their freedom is a test of how deserving they are of it.

As is well known, many English universities saw the introduction of tuition fees as an opportunity, increasing recruitment in low-cost subjects. But, as I wrote in 2005 concerning an earlier change in funding, this is no way to run a university. Pretty soon you will run out of space for students. VCs realised that if students are paying £9,000 a year, the least they expect is a seat to sit on in lectures, a desk on which to write an essay, and somewhere warm and dry to eat a sandwich. Hurry, hurry, put up more buildings.

Hence the frenzy. A recent report suggests more than £3bn has been invested in the last year in new buildings, with a similar amount spent on running costs. But it hasn’t always gone well.

Universities hope to move up the satisfaction tables by completing impressive new developments. But there are two flaws in this reasoning. First, the only people who are really impressed by the new are those who were appalled by the old. For future students, these buildings are simply the new normal, the minimum a university should provide. For the more privileged, often they are not better than the facilities they had at school. Second, some of the new building misses its mark. I’ve sat in seminar rooms with ceilings so low no one beyond the first row can see the PowerPoint screen. This is what students will remember, not the brushed-aluminium finish.

We have a falling demographic of teenagers in this country, although numbers will start to bounce back in 2021. But if Brexit reduces the attractiveness of the UK to overseas students, our problem will not be too many students in the available space, but not enough paying the overseas fees needed to service the building loans.

I always regret that VCs don’t read more of the work of the young Friedrich Engels – they would have done well to have glanced at a travel diary he wrote for the Telegraph für Deutschland at the age of 19. On reaching the town of Elberfeld, he noted an awkward, overblown building that had been sold off at auction and was now being used as a gentleman’s club. He writes: “This building used to be called the museum, but the Muses kept away and there remained only a huge burden of debt.”

 Jonathan Wolff is Blavatnik professor of public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford