UCL East: Flowery Promises Conceal Costly Commercialisation

As UCL prepares to open its new campus, questions arise over its true purpose and value to Bloomsbury’s current students. 

In 2013, Students’ Union UCL declared the failure of the university’s plans to build a second campus in Stratford a “momentous victory” against gentrification and against the “socially reckless agendas of today’s universities.” Nine years later, UCL is on a smoother road to developing its aptly-named campus, UCL East, in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP). Promising to deliver “cutting-edge facilities for genuine collaboration across disciplines and communities”, the campus’ 2022 opening is fast approaching. Despite UCL celebrating the completion of the development, it reveals the university’s prioritization of commercial growth and luxurious investment over the education of its current students. While the luxurious facilities will no doubt attract more students, the majority of the student body who remain in Bloomsbury, and whose fees have aided this development, will reap no benefits. 

The “high profile location of Phase 1 in the Olympic Park and the East Bank” aims, as the university describes, to help UCL establish a “strong presence” and a “clear identity” in London’s “new ambitious cultural and educational district.” Its promises are undeniably impressive: more than fifty new cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, “cutting-edge facilities”, high-quality residences for students, and public engagement and exhibition spaces. 

In an interview with The Cheese Grater, “Our campus is an opportunity to supercharge the rate at which we tackle the biggest issues facing people and the planet”, says Paola Lettieri, director of UCL East. What the education sector needs most today, according to Lettieri, is innovation in areas like robotics, engineering, architecture, manufacturing, and the creative industries. UCL’s expansion into East London aims to provide “bespoke facilities to bring students and staff together” to tackle problems in an “urgent, complex and integrated” manner.

However, the development fails to tackle a significant issue plaguing staff and students alike: overcrowding. Ideally, at the forefront of this project should lie a solution to the desperate need for learning spaces. The promise of a campus that houses 4000 students and 260 academic staff can sound, on the surface, relieving to the current population of Bloomsbury who are suffering from overcrowding; the doubling of UCL’s student body over ten years has left little room to breathe. However, even with the extra space that is provided, ‘4000 students’ is a mere drop in the approximate 41,000-student ocean that currently populates the Bloomsbury campus. Yet, UCL could not even provide this minor reprieve to overcrowding and has instead opted to use the Stratford campus to host students from more than fifty new degree programmes, increasing its population even further. 

Despite failing to offer space to current students, UCL argues that this expansion, both of infrastructure and student numbers, has a world-saving purpose. Paola Lettieri details how this will work, asserting that “the complex problems that face society today require ‘integrated solutions’” and that “we cannot afford to leave to chance those breakthroughs and discoveries that only emerge when great minds or ideas just happen to collide. At UCL East we are creating the conditions and spaces where they happen routinely.” It seems that collaboration lies at the heart of UCL East’s global vision. However, this raises questions regarding the appropriateness of the university’s separation of campuses. The university claims the journey between Bloomsbury and Stratford to be an easily accessible “7 minutes on the fast train from St Pancras to Stratford International.” Yet this accessibility is a privilege for those who are able to afford the £7 one-way journey, for which the alternative is a less attractive 45-minute tube journey. It is easy for students to feel disconnected in city campus universities, and, as Johara Meyer, Students’ Union Sustainability Officer, told The Cheese Grater, ‘having the majority of student life take place within walking distance of the main campus has always been a vital part of ensuring students feel like they belong at our university’. If interdisciplinary collaboration is the key to solving the world’s problems, why not create a united community in which the “great minds or ideas” of all UCL’s degrees can collide? 

Other promises show similar superficiality. In Phase 1, the UCL East Programme vows to create a “distinct and confident campus”, providing an “appropriate identity” for UCL on the Park. A first glance at the development’s “masterplan” shows a list of benefits that seem exciting. Phrases like “active frontages”, “chance interactions” and “high sustainable design” decorate their promises, but such fanciful phrases can easily be mistaken for abstract, commercial jargon. Further, claims of benefits such as “vibrant public spaces” and “movement in, around and through the buildings” carry no real substance, and it is difficult for students to envision what advantages this development may bring. 

UCL East’s purported commitment to sustainability also seems dubious. “UCL is so focused on the question ‘how can we make this building more sustainable?” when they really should be asking “is it sustainable to build at all?”, notes Johara Meyer. When posed with the question of what UCL is doing to minimise its environmental impact in the construction of the campus, Lettieri proclaims that “UCL East has been designed and built with sustainability at its core, inside and out.” The Director also reveals how UCL will become a “zero-carbon university across all [its] operations by 2030”.  But one key question remains: how? “From turning rubble into skateboard ramps or incorporating rainwater harvesting, to low-energy lighting and highly efficient mechanical ventilation, we have worked to minimise our construction’s carbon footprint.” Although such actions are welcome, the university has failed to consider – or ignored – the significant emissions from producing construction materials, transportation and fuelling vehicles on-site. While their website notes that “the project team have supported clean energy by keeping running costs and energy consumption to a minimum,” regardless of what technocentric solutions they are making use of to make this project “greener,” construction still produces an extensive footprint. Yet again, any scrutiny of the narratives surrounding UCL East reveal strong words but feeble action. 

So, what’s it all about?

Despite plenty of abstract commitments, one palpable promise of UCL East’s master plan is its aim to provide “cutting-edge facilities.” The literature about the new campus makes repeated reference to these, calling them “best-in-class”, “brand-newand  “state-of-the-art”. While many of these facilities have technical applications in fields such as engineering and medicine, others appear to represent luxury rather than utility. For example, the accommodation it seeks to offer, such as the Pool Street West building, will be “high-quality”, consisting of self-catered, en-suite rooms, with no alternative for a shared bathroom or smaller bedrooms. If expensive housing was not lavish enough, the Stratford campus also appropriately plans to open a 160-seat cinema. While UCL claim this will be used to “showcase students’ work,” their website shows it off: “Fully equipped, and open to students and the local community, our cinema will give everyone in the area the chance to see great works of cinematic art and to curate their own programmes of film.” It seems that, while much of the investment in UCL East serves an educative purpose, much of it represents needless luxury. The lavish nature of the accommodation alone suggests the demographic that the campus seeks to attract is wealthy students who can pay high fees. 

This apparent appeal to the tastes of the world’s elite implies UCL’s true aim is not to solve global problems but rather to attract high fee-paying students. In doing so, the university takes a great leap in the international facilities’ “arms race”, competing internationally to attract wealthy students who can pay £28,000 for a degree. With this as its goal, UCL East’s characterisation as a long-term financial investment may be more apt. The massive infrastructure project has cost at least £483 million so far, funded by at least £280 million of borrowed money. While the rest was to be funded by “philanthropic donations” – including £100m from the government – students have seen a per capita spending drop of as much as 27% in some sectors of UCL in recent years. While this may not be directly related to the project’s finances, one must wonder whether the spending cuts would be incurred if there were not an ongoing £1.25bn infrastructure project. UCL also seems unlikely to boost funding for student services anytime soon, especially considering it must pay back its debts. While the investment in UCL East may well pay off in the long-term by increasing the university’s revenue from international students, it has, and will likely continue to, come at the cost of its current students.

The ornate language employed by UCL East’s marketing team is a blatant attempt to conceal the university’s prioritization of commercial reputability and the allure of “luxury” over the education services that it provides to its students. While the promise of bespoke facilities may attract more students, and UCL might find itself benefitting from this in the long-term, there is no doubt that these expansion plans will have virtually no advantages for its current students. Bloomsbury will remain overcrowded, and student spending will face further cuts. Instead of solving the world’s problems, UCL East appears to reflect a principal one: it values profit over people.

In response to this article, a UCL spokesperson said: “Our new campus will expand the teaching, learning and research capacity of UCL in ways impossible to achieve in Bloomsbury, at the same time as enhancing opportunities and facilities for everyone in the UCL community. 

By bringing together students, staff and researchers from across disciplines to work together on the biggest challenges facing our planet, this is also an investment for the benefit of generations to come.

In developing UCL East, we continue to value the significant contribution made by the Student Forum; set up almost four years ago, its members have informed the look and feel of the spaces. Students also sit on the UCL East Operations Board and are able to provide comment and feedback on a range of strategic and operational decisions.”


By Emilija Deveikyte