Salford's bold move to MediaCity's lights, cameras and action
£30m campus in broadcast hub will boost industry links and graduate prospects, v-c tells John Morgan
Follow a roaring dual carriageway out of Manchester past derelict pubs sprouting weeds and, on the banks of the murky River Irwell, you reach the University of Salford's main campus.
Victorian red-brick buildings and 1960s blocks give the appearance of an old-fashioned institution. The university is situated in one of the most deprived areas in the country, where the struggle with post-industrial social problems was underscored by rioting in August.
But drive for 10 minutes to the MediaCityUK development at Salford Quays - where the BBC and ITV are major tenants - and a contrasting image of the university materialises.
On 4 October, 1,500 students on 35 courses - including journalism, the MBA, computer and video games and wildlife documentary-making - will walk through the doors of Salford's new £30 million building for the first time.
Being part of MediaCityUK could transform the university, and it is keen to bring in other institutions and their students to collaborate.
Martin Hall, Salford's vice-chancellor, believes that students there will have access to BBC work placements and jobs, while media organisations can expect to benefit from academic expertise.
"The BBC is looking for new ways of working with universities, and it is just beginning to realise the potential," Hall says.
But is it right for Salford to invest heavily in MediaCityUK at the same time as it cuts jobs for support staff? And will being at the glossy private development do anything for those living in the deprived areas around the university's main campus?
The first Salford students at MediaCityUK - and the 300 staff who will work there - will find TV and radio studios that are reportedly the envy of BBC staff, editing suites with a total of 170 seats, a video wall with the highest HD specification for the use of students and staff, a digital performance theatre with pin-sharp audio, as well as teaching, study and social spaces.
Look out of the windows and you can see the metallic curves and shards of Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North, the spot where the terraced houses of the new Coronation Street set will eventually rise, and the burgeoning blocks of upmarket new apartments for media professionals.
You can also see the offices of the BBC, which will house its children's, sport, and future media and technology divisions, as well as Radio 5 Live and BBC Breakfast.
The area aims to become a media and cultural hub, and a rare regional counterweight to London's power.
Urban regeneration aims
While it is Salford's media students who will be the obvious beneficiaries of this location, "it isn't just a media building", Hall says. "We want everyone to engage in there."
The university is "contributing to the regeneration of the city through this", he argues.
Regarding the proximity of the BBC and ITV, he adds: "It will certainly change us - that is why we have put all that investment into it."
Other institutions' vice-chancellors are expected to pay visits with a view to collaboration. "Media is such a burgeoning and complicated field that no one university can do everything," Hall says.
Can Salford students expect to obtain BBC work placements as a result of the university's presence at MediaCityUK?
"We have got to work that out in detail, but all of our communications with the BBC will be about creating those sorts of opportunities," Hall says.
He adds that the corporation "can't be expected to partner with a single university and we would never ask them to". He refers instead to "collaborative networks of universities".
Hall adds that "if you're taught down in MediaCity, there is no doubt that you would have a leading advantage in getting a placement with the BBC or ITV.
"Students will be drinking coffee in the same places as producers and content developers - that is going to help."
As higher tuition fees sharpen the focus on employability, universities will be looking for a competitive edge. Salford, which will charge an average annual undergraduate tuition fee of £8,400 in 2012, has already seen a "MediaCity effect" in higher numbers of applications, Hall says.
He puts Salford's spending to date on the development at £30.4 million (including £8 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England), with future rental costs of £19 million to November 2020.
Hall says the university "underinvested" in its campus over the past decade and has cash reserves.
Salford will lease its building from the MediaCityUK developer, the Peel Group, which owns a formidable range of assets in the region, including the Trafford Centre and the Manchester Ship Canal.
All this spending has come at a time when others at the university are feeling the pinch.
Over the course of this year, Salford has announced that 337 of its professional services jobs are at risk, although it has said that the "vast majority" of staff will be offered other roles.
'Transforming our arrangements'
The University and College Union has previously called Salford's new building a white elephant, claiming that staff "face the axe to service it".
Martyn Moss, UCU regional official, said the union hopes the development will be a success, but wants hard figures on student recruitment for courses there.
But, insists Hall, "we are not cutting jobs to pay for MediaCity. We are, like all universities, transforming our internal administrative and professional services arrangements."
On entering the building, visitors encounter a video wall made up of the largest number of Christie MicroTiles seen in any higher education institution in Europe. The modular digital display tiles, operated by touch tables, form a seamless digital canvas and are part of a reconfigurable space known as The Egg.
The aim is to teach students not in mock-ups of recording studios or editing suites, but to provide them with industry-standard "absolute spec" equipment, as Jon Corner, Salford's MediaCityUK director, puts it.
A key feature of the building, says Corner, is its media asset management system.
This means that recordings created in the studios can be accessed by anyone for editing at any computer or editing suite.
The broadcasters shown around are "quite amazed" that the university has this technology, Corner says, adding that students will be prepared for a world where rich data are standard not just in media but also in supermarkets and banks.
Corner says he is in talks with technology firms "not just to come and use our facilities, but to come and do some research with us".
He is optimistic that Adobe staff from the digital media firm's office in San Jose will come to work there.
No silos allowed
Beth Hewitt, senior lecturer in media practice and director of graduate and industry development, says she is already meeting colleagues from other disciplines thanks to the new set-up, which includes open-plan offices and hot-desking for academics.
"We can't continue teaching in that very siloed way - the place won't even allow it," she says.
BBC and ITV staff will be invited to give seminars, she adds, with "employers and students working together". The building will also "open up the BBC's idea of what universities can offer".
However, MediaCityUK has its critics. The Salford Star, an independent weekly news magazine, has suggested that the development offers little to the city's inhabitants.
"I understand that argument," Hall says, before adding, "that is precisely why we're doing it."
Some 40 per cent of Salford students are from deprived areas or are the first in their family to go to university, he adds, highlighting the university's further education college partnerships.
"How do you enable people who left school with a few GCSEs to compete for those media jobs? You need to provide top-flight education for them," Hall insists.
Salford's involvement means routes for local people into jobs at MediaCityUK that would "otherwise go outside the area", he adds.
Of the prospective Salford students shown around the development, Hall says: "You can see the excitement in their eyes - they want access to that. They don't want to be told, 'Your university won't have anything to do with this because it's a white elephant'."