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Pandemic-safe: Findings from UNWP report

None of us predicted that, by the time planning permission had been granted for the Univ North project, we would be in the grip of a pandemic – with the consequent uncertainties about the immediate future, and much discussion about how life would be forever changed. As it happened, that point also coincided with the arrival of Valerie Amos as our new Master. It is common practice to hold a broad-ranging review of major projects before going ahead, even in normal times, and the Master asked me to chair such a review of Univ North. The other Panel members were Tim Evans (OM, Director of the School of Population and Global Health at McGill University), Sara George (OM, Partner at Sidley), Catherine Holmes (Fellow in History), Andrew Ker (Fellow in Computer Science), and Calum Miller (OM, Chief Operating Officer at the Blavatnik School). Prior experience of leading major projects in Oxford came with Calum (the Blavatnik Building) and myself (the Beecroft Building for Physics). We consulted with expertise in the OM community and further afield and reported in January 2021.

The panel concluded that nothing has happened to undermine the fundamental case for the Univ North project. The higher education environment is never static, but residential face-to face education at Oxford will prosper for many years to come. Remote learning will be a significant element of education in the future but it is a poor substitute for live interaction between educator and educated — solitary study in virtual spaces without academic socialisation is not proving popular or productive for students. On the other hand, we do believe that rapidly evolving high-tech methods provide opportunities for Univ to reach communities that historically have been inaccessible to us — ultimately generating more, rather than less, demand for high quality residential education.

Since the start of the Univ North project in 2017, rising awareness of the climate crisis has led to increasing expectations of the energy performance of new buildings. The Univ North project has been designed to standards that substantially exceed the current regulatory requirements. Nonetheless the panel recommended that a rapid study be done to enable us to ensure that the design is as close to zero carbon as is practicable within the overall planning and financial envelope. This study is taking place as I write.

Managing the active phase of detailed design and construction of a £60m project is a major addition to the regular business of the college, especially when taken on top of an extra-ordinary load associated with the pandemic. The panel recommended a number of steps, which are currently being implemented, to ensure that we have robust manpower, processing, and oversight capacity in place for the duration of the project.

The panel also made recommendations on planning for the nursery, for the later phases of the project, and other issues, which are all being worked on. I hope that our work, and the follow-up actions taken by the College, will help ensure that the project delivers a facility that will support Univ’s educational mission far into the future.

Professor John Wheater (1979, Physics) was a University Lecturer at Durham 1984-5, before moving to a Lectureship at Oxford Physics where he is currently Professor of Physics and a Fellow of University College. He received the 1993 Maxwell Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics. He was Head of Department from 2010 to 2018.

Find out about all things “Univ North” on our dedicated University College, North Oxford page.

Published: 27 May 2021

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