10 Years of Exeter Forum

Ten years ago this week, the Forum at Exeter University was officially opened by HM The Queen.  This groundbreaking project by architects WilkinsonEyre, engineers Buro Happold and main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine was widely regarded as market leading in education provision at the time it opened.  The University’s vision anticipated the era of student charging and the huge expansion in student numbers of the years that followed.  The Forum was one of the first UK higher education projects to recognize the step-change in treating students as customers with choice.

The client brief aspired to a signature facility that would promote Exeter University and help propel them into a top ten university on the national ratings table, joining the Russell Group.  An internal “street” roofed by a visually arresting, long span timber grid shell, connects formerly disparate elements on the campus to become a new common-place and focus of the campus.  The blend of functions housed within or accessed from the street – café, student union, canteen, library, auditorium and learning labs – create a unique dynamic with capacity for expansion because of the looseness and responsiveness of the design.

The anniversary is a good moment to reflect on what has changed since then and what we, as university architects and planners, would do differently in thinking about a “future forum”.  It is fair to say that the Forum is in many ways a victim of its own success, demand to come and study at Exeter has outstripped the space provision.  Some functions, such as the café, have expanded at the expense of others.  The existing 1980s deep-plan library, refurbished to accommodate 3km of book shelving, has shifted its acquisition policy to being almost entirely digital.  This has created an unsatisfactory dilemma between a constrained, dark deep plan library, designed to hold books, and the overwhelming need for a variety of well-lit study spaces with good power provision. Ten years on, student expectations and aspirations are different from what they were. Support and welfare, targeted in the initial brief, have a particular focus and the social environment created at places like the Forum, is the primary ingredient in the student experience, especially significant in the post-pandemic regrouping of higher education.

The original project team have now committed to gather evidence on the project’s accomplishments and those elements that have not worked as well, utilising hard and soft data on metrics including student satisfaction, user numbers and energy performance.  We aim to publish our findings later in the summer. 

You can learn more about the Exeter Forum here.