The Opening of The Exchange takes Birmingham Back to the Future

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“This marks a new chapter in the University’s relationship with the city, but echoes a theme in its origins as Britain’s first civic university.”

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The Exchange building on Broad Street is opening as the University’s new home in the heart of the city. It offers space for everything from a casual coffee to formal meetings and grand exhibitions in the striking circumstances of one of the last examples of monumental municipal masonry.

This marks a new chapter in the University’s relationship with the city, but echoes a theme in its origins as Britain’s first civic university. The University started only a stone’s throw from The Exchange, in the vast Victorian Gothic edifice of Mason College in Edmund Street off Chamberlain Square. This building, in use until it was demolished in the city’s 1960s redevelopment, gave the University a footprint in the centre of Birmingham whilst the Edgbaston campus was established and developed. Lectures, degree processions and the annual charity Carnival were originally run from there, and integral to city centre life.

The Exchange also reminds us of the founders and early leaders of the University. It was built in 1933 as the headquarters of the City Council’s Savings bank. This pioneering venture, which encouraged Brummies on modest incomes to start savings accounts to secure their futures earning interest from small deposits, was founded in 1916 as Lord Mayor by Neville Chamberlain, an active member of the University’s Court and the son of its first Chancellor, Joseph. The bank helped local people buy their first home, and ploughed its revenues into expanding Birmingham’s council housing stock in the 1930s. The earnestly optimistic injunctions ‘Saving is the mother of riches’ and ‘Thrift radiates happiness’ can still be seen etched into the walls of the main lobby.

Lastly The Exchange is part of a strengthened relationship not just with Birmingham’s physical and historical features, but with its public. Of course, even after the Edmund Street building closed, the University’s arts students still rehearsed and staged performances at the Town Hall and the Hippodrome; the School of Dentistry and the Department of Extra-Mural Studies taught in the city centre; and the University’s historians researched and toured classes around its rich tapestry of sites.

But the opening of The Exchange takes this to a new level, and builds on the work of recent years in recruiting local students through the A2B programme, supporting local business through West Midlands REDI, and our partnership with the upcoming Commonwealth Games. We will even see the return of modernised versions of transport links from the days of the University’s foundation with a tram line from The Exchange to Edgbaston, plans for a hydrogen-powered canal shuttle, and the new £56 million campus train station all consolidating connections with the city.

The Municipal Bank was merged into the TSB in the 1970s, and the building closed its doors in 1998, thereafter being disused except for filming pop videos or TV series including Line of Duty and Spooks. It is fitting that, just as the city centre has been regenerated since that time, the University has made its return to a permanent home there, closing the loop after sixty years and re-emphasising its status as a civic university with a global vision. With the opening of The Exchange, the University says ‘welcome’ to the public; but to itself it says ‘welcome home’.

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