Olympic Park Still a Field of Gold Dreams

Times Higher Education, March 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Olympic Park Still a Field of Gold Dreams


An East London innovation and education quarter is arising with universities' help. Holly Else reports

As the UK watched Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford storm to gold on the "Super Saturday" of the 2012 London Olympics few will have been wondering what would happen to Olympic Park once the Games ended.

But the race to transform the site into a vibrant new quarter of London is now well under way, with innovation and higher education taking centre stage thanks to several universities and their belief in its future potential.

Two of these are the University of East London and Birkbeck, University of London, which teamed up to open a new joint campus just outside Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park last year.

Loughborough University is another eager for a slice of the action. It is set to open a new postgraduate campus in what was the Olympic Park's broadcasting centre by the end of 2015.

And after a false start, which involved abandoning a controversial plan to redevelop an East London housing estate, University College London is drawing up plans for a base at Olympic Park. Its sights are set on the park's Marshgate Wharf area to the south of the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower.

Michael Arthur, UCL's provost, said the plans had "moved on a lot since our initial thinking". The 50,000 sq m site will incorporate industrial and other higher education partners and could open in 2018, he said.

The subject areas being considered for the site at this stage are design and heritage, experimental engineering and an open innovation space called "UCL Future Now", which will focus on the interactions between people and technology. The plans also include accommodation, a space for early career researchers and alumni entrepreneurs, and the development of a "museum of the future" in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum.

"Ideas are popping up all the time," Professor Arthur said, and a steering group is sifting through them all. "As you can imagine, there is some nervousness because these are the ideas now for something in five years' time...This will be a continuously evolving process."

The current proposal envisages 1,100 students on site, most of them postgraduates, along with at least 100 staff - although the employee headcount could rise if the site pulled in significant research funding, Professor Arthur said.

Professor Arthur is not anxious about opening a postgraduate institution when there are widespread concerns that the numbers studying at this level are dwindling. Postgraduate numbers are "going up quite significantly" at UCL, he said, and the international market is "growing exponentially".

'Compelling' proposition

Loughborough's plans for Olympic Park are more advanced than UCL's. The university has signed a long lease with the landlord of what was the broadcasting centre and has secured planning permission to develop the site.

Mike Caine, dean of Loughborough University in London, said that the institution was hiring key staff in leadership, business development, marketing and academia.

He said that Loughborough had been attracted to Stratford in particular by the vision of the company behind the development - Here East, formerly iCITY - which aims to provide business incubation space for technology start-ups as well as host big companies including BT Sport and the data centre operator Infinity SDC.

This represented a "compelling mix" and a "tremendous opportunity", Professor Caine said. "We particularly liked the idea that we would be able to influence and shape that ecosystem in a way that would be much more difficult if we were coming into an existing area of London. …

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