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Coventry University: Top of the League
2nd May 2019

Coventry University is one of the higher education success stories of the past 25 years. Here, Deputy Vice Chancellor Ian Dunn explains its journey to success.

It was not so many years ago that Coventry was a powerhouse of innovation and industry – the beating heart of the UK’s manufacturing base.

A centre of excellence for clocks and watches, the bicycle and the motorcar and home to such revered brands as Daimler, Triumph and Jaguar; Coventry was operating on a global stage with a reputation to match.

However, the second half of the 20th century was not kind to Coventry. Instigated by the catastrophe of the Blitz and exacerbated by the decline in the motor industry, Coventry suffered a post-industrial decline to rival any, so evocatively captured in Ghost Town, the early 80s anthem by celebrated Coventrians, The Specials.

But Coventry was never going to be a city that would just roll over and die. Today it is experiencing a renaissance to rival anywhere in the UK and one of the institutions that is not just benefiting from its rejuvenation but is also one of its architects is Coventry University.

Coventry was a city without a university until the 1960s when the University of Warwick was established on the leafy outskirts of the city. While Coventry University can trace its roots back to the Coventry College of Design in 1843 – and as such is celebrating 175 years since first establishing its educational presence in the city – it went through a series of iterations before becoming a university in 1992 following government legislation.

In the subsequent quarter of a century or so, the university’s story has been one of enterprise to rival anything in the city’s rich history to the point that Coventry University was voted the UK’s best modern university for three years running and is now considered one of the most innovative in the country.

One man who has been on every step of that journey is the university’s current Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience, Ian Dunn, whose relationship with the institution started back in a previous iteration when he was an engineering and French undergraduate when it was still Coventry (Lanchester) Polytechnic.

Sketch showing proposed new Science and Health Building at Coventry University

“It wasn’t a particularly fashionable place to go at the time but it was one of the few places that offered me the opportunity to pursue my interest in engineering while continuing a foreign language,” he said. “I kept in touch with the faculty and wanted to do a PhD but ended up coming back and starting a teaching job the year it became a university.”

The Vice-Chancellor in 1992 was Dr Michael Goldstein, who Ian feels created the solid base for his successor Professor Madeleine Atkins to light the touch paper at the university and begin it on its upward trajectory.

“She really created the university we know today from that base she inherited,” he said. “She created the entrepreneurial ethos, developing the teaching and learning profile and the foundation of research – she created the ecosystem at the university.”

In 2013 the current Vice-Chancellor Professor John Latham was appointed after Atkins left to head up the Higher Education Funding Council for England, who brought a new drive and ambition to the university. “There are a multitude of stars that need to align to build a successful university and it is not just about leadership – but it is crucially important,” Ian said.

Ian’s own rise into the leadership team saw him become Associate Dean in 2005 and then acting Dean of Engineering and Computing in 2010, having been asked to lead on teaching and student profile. He feels his elevation can be traced to the development of one building.

“There are a multitude of stars that need to align to build a successful university and it is not just about leadership – but it is crucially important”
Ian Dunn, Deputy VIce-Chancellor, Coventry University

A timeline to success

He said: “ECB1 was the first new building for a generation for the engineering and computing faculty and we started the funding process for this project back in 2005. There were two routes that we could have taken – there was the traditional route which was probably more functional and focused on delivery but we decided to take another route.

“A small group of us had written a paper that articulated a vision for the faculty around ‘activity led learning’. It was based on the concept of learning by doing rather than just from talking. On the back of this we put together a framework and started to build staff capability for the project. From that we created a design-led building where the spaces define their subject rather than people sat in lines listening to somebody talking. A building where the students sit in groups and solve problems and the tutor is there to facilitate and bring the subject to life.

“We really sat on the architects and had people in their offices throughout the whole process. We drove them hard as is it was about what we thought about education, not what they thought. We looked at ideas around the world and worked really hard to create something new and exciting. The building opened in 2012 and I am very proud of it as it still works in the way it was designed. It is now more than a decade since that vision statement and it is as relevant today as it was then.”

A new generation of learning environments

In recent years Broadway Malyan has been working with the university to develop the next generation of faculty buildings based on the ‘active learning’ ethos and recently delivered the new Alison Gingell Building for the Health and Life Science Faculty. The building includes the first industry-grade education based laboratory in the UK, housing up to 250 students at one time. Plans have also been submitted for ECB2, the new sister building to that first landmark development, which will be known as the Beatrice Shilling Building.

The practice is also working with the university to create a series of 24/7 collaborative social learning spaces for students – one linked to the student union – where students can gather outside of class time.

“The culture of student life has changed considerably in recent years,” said Ian. “At Coventry, we have 11,000 international students, about a third of a very diverse student body, but they still want places where they
can gather.

Simulated hospital ward, demonstrating the interactive learning spaces at Coventry University's new Science and Health building.

“When our library was first built it was a library in the traditional sense but it became much more than a place where we keep books. If you go in at this time of year, as we approach exams, at 3am you will find all the 1,500 study places full with students, which is phenomenal.

“A good friend of mine visited the university recently and as we walked around she said to me, ‘Do you realise that your students are all learning even in the café?’. Since then I wander around and love the fact that we have created the spaces and the environments that students want to study in.

“…we created a design-led building where the spaces define their subject rather than people sat in lines listening to somebody talking.”

As well as its innovative learning approach, the university has incredibly strong links with industry and a growing reputation around its research that focuses on big societal questions such as local community cohesion or water resilience in the developing world. All this means Coventry University has no plans to slow its upward trajectory any time soon.

Internal staircase at Coventry University's new Science and Health Building, showcasing the use of shallow floor plates and soft timber detail.

Its student numbers have grown from 21,000 in 2010 to 34,000 students in the UK across four campuses as well as just under 20,000 with collaborative partners across the world – and applications to study at the university have increased hugely over the past decade.

Ian believes the university will continue to evolve and innovate as it strives to attract the best students and staff. While society’s established rules are being challenged by the digital revolution, he feels that an exciting campus will remain the cornerstone of any successful university.

He said: “We have very much embraced the digital transformation agenda but I have no doubt that university campuses still have a future. Our experience is that young students still like to assemble with their peers in learning and social environments.

“The fact is that our students are already online learners whether they are on campus or not and we are continuing to develop our online provision so that the university and learning becomes more accessible. We are creating communities of learning, whether that is actual or virtual.

“There is the ability for the 18-year-old who still wants the three year experience but we do understand that the world is changing. We know that people will have multiple careers so we are also providing courses that allow people to upskill so they can move on to their next challenge.

“The future of education may be less linear and we have to adapt to that reality. What is certain is that the future is not shaped or constrained by new technology but by our own thinking.”