Festivals of learning

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Extraordinary on-campus experiences are the new measure of higher education success.

By Adam Scott with illustration by Sammy Barry

The metrics for judging colleges and universities today include more than legacy and publishing reputations. As a result, the new challenges for further (or higher) education today centre on making the campus an extraordinary experience. 

A successful campus attracts, involves, and makes lifelong fans of students, academics and a fascinating range of stakeholders. For everyone involved, university is much more than the mechanics of a degree. It’s a coming of age. It’s a magnificent, giant learning experience, and a way of life.

Unfortunately, the value stack for the redevelopment of campuses tends to invert the logic of this quest for experience. As in other sectors, masterplanning typically begins with the design of buildings. It grows the interior out of the architectural constraints of that design. And 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 but for this analogy. 

You don’t go to a festival because of the size, variance and design of the marquees. In the same way, people don’t choose a university on the merits of its buildings, soft furnishings and typical journeys. They choose it for what it offers. 

I mean offer’ in the widest sense possible. The curriculum in all its aspects – academic, extra and hidden. A campus that caters for and encourages diverse lifestyles. And an attractive program that, like a festival, makes space for the unexpected as much as for the expected. 

ENJOYING OUR CAMPUS YOUR WAY

Imagine a campus program as a giant what’s-on’ entity that covers everything. Fixed daily, weekly, and monthly timetables, one-off events, and information about campus happenings. 

It’s there, obviously, to help map schedules. But it also fosters opportunity. Students can plan and create their own experiences, driven by their individual interests, needs and wants. 

The campus-as-program enables journeys imagined by individuals in situ – not by campus masterplanners. 

This feels much easier to say than do, I know. But forementioned nods to the festival as inspiration are more than analogous. Campuses and festivals are different beasts, one a permanent seat of learning, the other a temporary mass celebration. 

But each time I attend a festival, which lives or dies by the quality of its program, I’m reminded of what campus designers can learn from festival makers. They’re far more advanced when it comes to creating the sort of experiences that future campuses will need to succeed.

LESSONS FROM THE FESTIVAL FIELD

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’. Its totems of experience are music, food, books, ideas, workshops’ all enjoyed in the great outdoors.’ 

And it is what it says on the tin. The program is the printed result of a year’s worth of judicious curiosity-building conversation. Festival-goers first meet a giant physical departures-like board – the program. It repeats the line-up, activities and stuff as seen online, but it also signifies a gateway to another, altogether special, world. 

Over the next three days, the program is our experience map and guide, connecting us to the expected and the unexpected. The attractions serve as impromptu meeting places, and the experiences we’ve signed up to structure our custom journey of fun and discovery. We join in dances, roar in crowds, and make bows and arrows. By the end, we’re all collaborating, an act that’s the life and blood of the festival. 

I’m not party to the masterplanning of Matthews and Gladstone. But I’m betting my last pair of shoes that the phrases user experience’ and user journey’ have hardly ever – perhaps never – passed their lips. We can plan to attract, involve and give people a sense of belonging, but we can’t own the experiences of anyone but ourselves. Every experience is unique.

PROGRAMMING FOR AN EXCEPTIONAL EDUCATION 

Thinking about our campus of the future. Could we apply the Good Life’s elevator pitch to a program duration of three or more years, instead of three days? Change the location to the university’s city, and refresh the list of experience totems, and we’ve begun to design the campus as a festival of learning. 

This is neither a frivolous nor a bizarre recommendation. The festival of learning’ is as enjoyable as it is necessarily serious. Remember, it’s the program that informs everything.

For the future campus to be the attractive, vibrant and high performing place we all want it to be, it must start with the most inspirational of programs.

The campus must offer opportunities that invite curiosity, enable connection and encourage collaboration. Opportunities to cross-pollinate and design your own syllabus. To attend lectures, seminars and workshops across the campus. To enjoy spaces to eat, shop, socialise, and play. To interact with academics, fellow students and people from all walks of life, and also with the world of work. And to do all this on campus, in many places and many ways.

So, a call to action for the future campus: get the program right! Do this and we have a master plan for the experiences of the very people who will, in turn and in return, create for, do well in, and remember the university. And their higher education will be exactly what it’s kicked up to be: a wonderful, life changing experience, and a success by any metric.

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