Festivals of Learning

As the metrics for judging the success of colleges and universities expands to include more than legacy and publishing reputations, the challenges facing further education today centre on the campus as an extraordinary experience, one that attracts, involves, and makes lifelong fans of students, academics and a fascinating range of key stakeholders.

For everyone involved, whatever the importance of results, university is so much more than the mechanics of a degree. It’s a coming of age. It’s a way of life. It’s a magnificent and giant learning experience.

Unfortunately, as is the case across different sectors, the masterplanning value stack for the redevelopment of campuses tends to invert the logic of this quest for experience. It begins, instead, with the design of building(s). It grows the interior out of the architectural constraints of that design. And, finally, it thinks about how all this feeds into a category we all call the ‘end user’. This is my shtick, and I’ve banged on about it time and again, so I‘ll save you the detail, except to say that in the same way that you don’t go to a festival because of the size, variance and design of the marquees, so people don’t choose a university on the merits of its buildings, soft furnishings and typical journeys.

Rather, they choose it on the basis of what it offers, and by this I mean ‘offer’ in the widest sense possible, the curriculum in all its many aspects, academic, extra and hidden, the many types of lifestyle(s) as catered for and encouraged by a campus that, like a festival, attracts through a programme that makes space as much for the unexpected as it does the expected. I imagine such a programme as a giant ‘what’s-on’ entity, one that covers everything from fixed daily, weekly, and monthly timetables, to one-off events, to information about happenings across campus. It’s there not just to help map schedules, but also to foster opportunity, to encourage journeys born not (only) of the imagination of the masterplanner, but rather of the individual(s) in situ, experiences created and driven by the interests, needs and wants of the students themselves.

All of which feels much easier to say than do, I know. However, abovementioned nods to the festival as inspiration are more than analogous. While, of course, they are two very different beasts, one a temporary piece of mass celebration, the other a permanent seat of learning, whenever I attend a festival, and in particular the end-of-season Good Life, which lives or dies by the quality of its programme, I am reminded how much further advanced the festival maker is when it comes to attracting and helping create the sort of experiences the designers of future campuses aspire to.

The Good Life Experience festival is the brainchild of Cerys Matthews and Charlie Gladstone. It lasts three days, and is, they say, ‘a weekend of fun and discovery’. They list its cornerstone areas or totems of experience as ‘music, food, books, ideas, workshops’, all, they say, to be enjoyed in ‘the great outdoors.’ It is what it says on the tin. The programme the printed result of a year’s worth of judicious curiosity-building conversation, festival-goers are met at its start by a giant physical departure-like board (the programme), which as well as repeating the line-up, activities and stuff as seen online, acts as a gateway into another, different, and altogether special world.

Once in, and over the course of the next three days, the programme is our experience map and guide, connecting us to the expected and the unexpected, the attractions serving as impromptu meeting places, the experiences we’ve signed up to the structure by which we do exactly as hoped: have fun and discover. By the end, whether it’s joining in dances, roaring in crowds, or making a bow and arrow, we are all in some way collaborating, an act that is quite literally the life and blood of the festival itself. I am not party to the masterplanning of Matthews and Gladstone, but I’m betting my last pair of shoes on the fact that the phrases ‘user experience’ and ‘user journey’ have hardly ever – perhaps never – passed their lips. We can plan to attract, involve and give a sense of belonging, but we can’t own it, at least not the experiences of anyone but ourselves. Every experience, however similar to the last, is unique.

So, thinking on our campus of the future, if we look again at the Good Life’s elevator pitch, change the time reference to three or more years, and the place to the name of the university’s home own or city, and refresh that list of totems of experience, then we are beginning to design for the campus as a festival of learning, one that is as enjoyable as it is necessarily serious. This is neither a frivolous nor a bizarre recommendation. Remember, it’s the programme that informs everything. If the campus of the future is to be the attractive, vibrant and high performing place that we all want it to be, if it’s to invite curiosity, facilitate connection, and encourage collaboration, then it needs to start with the most inspirational of programmes, offering the opportunity: to cross-pollinate and design some of our own syllabuses, attending lectures, seminars and workshops across the campus; to want to eat, shop, socialise, and play here; to meet not only with academics, fellow students or our own culture, but also with the world of work, with all walks of life, and with people from everywhere; and to be able to do all this on campus, in multiple places and multiple ways.

So, a call to action for the future campus: Get the programme right. Do this and we have a masterplan for the experiences of the very people who will, in turn and in return, create for, do well in, and remember the university that has been exactly what it’s kicked up to be: a wonderful, life changing experience, a success, whatever the metric.