Envisioning Our Future

Editor Abbie Cheeseman looks at the college's 2013 - 2020 strategy to assess how close we are to our extraordinarily ambitious targets.

Having trawled through college strategic strategies, financial information and masterplans, it’s safe to say that Royal Holloway has its sights set high for how it envisages itself at the end of the 2020 grand strategy. It will have been consistently in the top 20 UK universities and the top 200 worldwide universities for the past seven years. In each academic discipline we will have a world-leading research specialism and our research intensity will be of the highest standard. We will have increased our economic contribution by 20%, partly through increasing the number of students attending to 10,500. Our facilities will be fit-for-purpose, from the Davison, Electrical Engineering and Music & Media buildings, to the additional 2,650 bedrooms that will cater for the ever-growing student population. However, as we enter 2018, it might be time to take the rose-tinted glasses off.

Since 2013, when the current strategic plan was introduced, our position in Times Higher Education World Rankings have taken a nose dive from 119th to 197th, just keeping us within our top 200 aspirations. Our UK rankings, however, tell a different tale as in 2018 we sit at 31st.

Rumours are rife around campus that our next strategic plan will be a final push to getting us admitted to the Russell Group. It is highly unlikely that this will be explicitly mentioned – it is the aim of any university to be admitted into the most elite and research intensive group of universities in the country, but to publically admit so would be a reputation bruiser. No university wants to set themselves up as a comparison that’s not quite there, or have the audacity to suggest they can strategically plan their way into the elite. The exclusive Russell Group is not the Conservative Party; they will not be rushing to increase their membership or have a reshuffle of institutions. So, why are people so adamant that we’re inching closer?

A major part of the speculation is the new focus on engineering. Having started offering Electrical Engineering courses in September 2017, the department is having a £20 million purpose-designed building constructed. The average profile of a Russell Group university offers at least two of Engineering, Law and Medicine. The College have also confirmed that they will be expanding the newly established Law School into the Arts Building, once the space has been released by the new Music and Media Building, set to be built near the current Katherine Worth Building.

We have a tight community at Royal Holloway – granted, it can at times be soul destroying to never be five metres away from someone you know, but it’s also an enormous part of the charm of the campus.

By 2021, the college is aiming to increase the student population to 10,500. Whilst this figure has grown exponentially from ten years ago (check 2008 figures), it seems like a figure that the campus can handle. The new George Eliot halls have ensured that we have enough accommodation to house undergraduates to that figure and, well frankly, that’s about it. The £57 million flagship Davison building may be a much more fit-for-purpose space, but it most definitely does not serve the needs of 10,500 students. With Bedford library being used to house the Computer Science and Mathematics & Information Security departments, half of Founder’s library being repurposed and no exact opening date for the other half, we are currently left with the 1,140 study spaces that the Davison building offers. So with no more than 1/10th of students having access to a study space at any given point, Royal Holloway have decided to step up their ambitions to teaching 12,000 students by 2031. It’s a ‘modest growth’ though, so nothing to be concerned about.

On a similar note, finding a study space will be the least of the worries of the Royal Holloway students of the future. What happens when they can’t find anywhere to live in second and third year? The annual panic of finding a house in Egham or Englefield Green seems to inch closer and closer every year, with first years being forced to start finding accommodation in November. The surrounding area is barely coping with the current amount of students, let alone a significant raise. Campus should be fine though as the 2031 masterplan that has been approved by Runnymede Borough Council shows: Penrose, Wettons, The Hub, Electron Microscopy Site (area around old SU shop), Ripley springs (around the back of Queens) and the old library depository site (by back gate) are all planned to be demolished/redeveloped into student accommodation.

Whether we are going to make these student intake targets is an entirely other question though.  It is a key performance indicator target of the 2013-2020 strategy that 80% of new undergraduate entrants will place Royal Holloway as their first choice. Whilst we do not currently hold up-to-date data on this, Mail Online reported that in 2017 we had 261 courses listed in UCAS Clearing with vacancies. When Orbital Magazine asked the College to provide the number of applications (excluding clearing) for the previous three academic years, they declined to share the data under the Freedom of Information Act. The College stated “to release the information that you have requested would prejudice the College’s commercial interests” and “prejudice the ability of the College to effectively engage in a competitive student market”. In other words, our applications are either going down dramatically or just nowhere near target.

The 2031 estate plan that has been approved by the council will also see other developments across campus, including: a social building at The Hub for adjoining residential buildings; the forest behind queens to have a landscaped trail and fitness equipment; a pedestrian access to the A30 between Boilerhouse and the International Building will be opened; and the main car park by Piggery Gate will be decked and have 700 spaces.

It’s better to be ambitious with development than to stagnate. However, it seems that there is only so much that our small campus can take. So is there a possibility that the campus will spread further into Egham post-2020?

Runnymede Borough Council’s Sustainable Community Strategy calls on Egham as ‘Runnymede’s university town’. It goes on to suggest that it will promote the ‘expansion and development’ of Royal Holloway and ‘seek more student built accommodation’. Although much of the land that could be developed is protected by the constraints of the Green Belt Policy, the council have acknowledged that the master estate plan can exceed what would normally be acceptable development in this area in the Local Plan Core Strategy.

It seems that Royal Holloway in 2020 stands at a crossroads in terms of development and expansion. Can we continue to invest so heavily into estate plans that will rival us with Russell Group counterparts whilst our rankings continue to decline? It seems as though Royal Holloway needs to limit its expansion, focus on improving the number of applications that it is receiving, the quality of its teaching and ensuring that it’s current estate is fit for its purpose and size before expanding and turning Egham into a ‘university town’.