While some universities are funding huge building projects out of international student fees, an increasing number in Australia and elsewhere are finding that the ground beneath their feet is the best foundation for reaching to the sky. But should universities really be swapping ivory towers for commercial skyscrapers?

For a sector crippled by funding cuts, Australia’s universities sure build a lot. The country’s big city campuses boast more scaffolding than a medieval European cathedral project. Cranes tower like metallic beanstalks. Football field-sized holes in the ground next door foretell whole new metro stations.

The University of Sydney, for instance, recently opened a gleaming administration building and student accommodation block, and is busy constructing new homes for its faculties of health and arts and its School of Life and Environmental Sciences. It is also constructing a new museum to house its antiquities, natural history collection and 8,000-plus artworks; part of the funding was provided by the same Chinese-Australian philanthropist who also co-funded a new business school at the nearby University of Technology Sydney. The latter, designed by prominent US architect Frank Gehry, is one of four recent major construction projects at UTS.

Across town at UNSW Sydney, cranes that hovered for years over two new biological sciences buildings have finally been lowered. But earth-moving equipment is rumbling across the road at the Randwick Health and Education Precinct, where an entire block of homes has been levelled to make way for the university’s A$2 billion (£1.1 billion) joint venture with the New South Wales health department – the biggest estate development in UNSW’s 70-year history.

Similarly disruptive changes are afoot at the University of Melbourne, where the Grattan Street artery has been closed for the construction of a new underground railway station. To celebrate, the university is plonking an entire city block of student services and cultural facilities on the station’s doorstep, with building to start next year.

And, not to be outdone, the Australian National University in Canberra launched its Kambri cultural precinct in February. The A$260 million redevelopment features a concert venue, cinema, pool, gym, supermarket, bars and a cultural centre featuring a huge mural by legendary Australian painter Sidney Nolan. It’s a taste of things to come; in August, the ANU unveiled its new masterplan, vowing to restructure its entire campus over the next 20 years. “Piecemeal change will not achieve the university’s goals,” the report proclaims.

Read more : John Ross : Times Higher Education : 24 October 2019