Vice Chancellors and the desirable properties they desire

In the heart of many VCs there’s a property developer who isn’t waiting to get out

It’s been a big couple of weeks for universities buying and building property.

ANU announced a near $17m land purchase on Canberra city-fringe Marcus Clark Street – 200 meters from its 2021 purchase there, also for $17m or so.

And not far across town, UNSW has master-plan approval for its long in-development Constitution Avenue city campus, designed to accommodate 6000 students.

VC’s love these three classes of construction– the research precinct, the community resource and the Mark Twain approach  (“buy land, they’re not making it anymore”) – especially when they get two or three functions on site.

ANU’s new buy is to house, a “national health-precinct … a new home for its world-leading research and teaching in health as well as a place where Canberrans can access the latest therapies,” plus it will be “a centre for policy-making in health.”

There is an all but universal idea that a star centre will inexorably draw other researchers and entrepreneurs into its orbit.

Drug company Moderna is building an MRNA vaccine manufacture plant at Monash U Clayton, adding heft to a precinct that already includes CSIRO, the Australian Synchrotron, Victorian Heart Hospital, and Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication. Last week Monash U bought adjacent sites from Telstra and CSIRO, presumably with expansion in mind.

Monash U also picked up another CSIRO site last week, in inner-city Parkville, to expand its Pharmacy Faculty’s research resource. It’s near the University of Melbourne which has created a world-scale biomedical research precinct extending off campus – with university researchers, hospitals and entrepreneurs. And there’s more coming. In October philanthropists Geoffrey and Anna Cumming kicked in $250m for a pandemic research centre.

The UNSW plan is for a campus that links in to Canberra’s research centres and creates a student residential community adjacent to the city.

It’s a property-developing VC’s dream – like that being brought to life in Curtin U’s, plans for its Bentley campus, six km from the Perth CBD – “a diverse population, various accommodation options, ease of transit, a 365-day sustainable economy, art and culture, abundant green spaces and retail, dining and recreation options – mixed with research, learning and aligned industry partners.”

For a generation, universities with broad acres have looked to develop them. Uni Wollongong now wants to capitalise on land it owns– in partnership with developer Lendlease. Last year it applied for planning permission for a “health and wellbeing precinct,” including residential aged care, childcare centre, a “wellness centre, café and community hub” plus “neighbourhood retail.”

And then there is ANU’s 2021 Mark Twain purchase. The Canberra Times headlined the news “ANU vice-chancellor defends $17m spend on ‘irreplaceable’ land.”

The university bought the site from the ACT Government, leasing it back for the bus interchange already there. “When we have firm plans in place, we will be sure to let our community know,” ANU stated last week, adding, the final development, “will make a substantive and vital contribution to our campus, our world-leading research and teaching and the ACT.”

There is nothing new in this. The pursuit of good property deals which could be useful later is a long-held principle. The University of Sydney devoured the suburb of Darlington over 50 years. But there is a modern variation – trading up. University of Tasmania is immensely unpopular in inner-city Hobart over its plan to sell most of its suburban Sandy Bay campus to fund a relocation to the CBD.

And that reflects a common concern with all classes of campus construction. Universities “are morphing into property developers with a side-hustle in education,” Damian Cahill from the NTEU told Campus Morning Mail last year.

Which, depending on what is done and how it is presented, may be no bad thing – indeed, it might be a very good one by demonstrating universities deliver services that are visible in communities.

As Verity Firth (UTS) put it, in announcing Australian access to the Carnegie Foundation community engagement classification, “universities have a vital role to play in the community. We are public purpose institutions, and by working with and alongside those in our local precinct, we can contribute to large scale social impact and positive change.”

It can also be a protective one. Glyn Davis, when VC of University of Melbourne, explained why, in a 2017 speech to the UPP Foundation in London, on the dangers to universities from hostile governments and indifferent communities. 

“When we engage, we encourage local forces to defend the value of universities whenever politicians stoke resentment. We make clear the campus offers more than qualifications and traffic – the university, is, in a real sense, part of the community.”



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