Very late in 2014, VU opened a downtown shopfront location as part of its Footscray University Town initiative, being undertaken in close partnership with the Maribyrnong City Council.
The VU@MetroWest development, which complements two existing university campuses in Footscray, includes a Coop Bookshop, a coffee shop, meeting rooms, gallery space, event space, and a student-led Psychology Clinic.
Although the opening of the shopfront location was seen by some as a leap of faith, its first six months of operation have highlighted the benefits to the University of opening itself up the community via a welcoming, accessible entry point.
For example, in the first six months of operation, the centre has hosted almost two hundred events, ranging from high-profile public lectures (such as Barry Jones speaking to a large audience about the lack of engagement of modern Australia with science and ideas, an event subsequently broadcast on Radio National), through to major exhibitions like the one celebrating 40 years since the mass arrival of Vietnamese boat people, and the contribution that this population of refugees has subsequently made to Australian society.
Footscray represents one of the richest multicultural diasporas in Australia, having served as home to waves of immigrants since the Greek and Italian arrivals immediately after the Second World War. Successive populations of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Middle-Eastern, and most recently Horn of Africa arrivals have enlivened Footscray as a culturally vibrant village in Melbourne, and the VU@MetroWest location has created a welcoming space where different groups can meet, present, interact and share ideas under the auspices of a tertiary education institution.
The University’s students have also benefited from the creation of VU@ MetroWest; in addition to the student-led Psychology Clinic, there are plans for a student-led Communications Agency in 2016, and a small cadre of students has been employed to work in the space in the role of Student Ambassadors.
The timing of the opening of VU@MetroWest has been an ideal lead-in to activities planned by the University for 2016 – the Centenary of the opening of the Footscray Technical School in 1916, the direct forerunner of what we now know as Victoria University. It is therefore fitting that VU@MetroWest also serves as the location for a Centenary Exhibition that highlights the history of the institution through a range of storyboards, historical photographs and items from the University archives. Presenting this exhibition in a downtown location has made it available to a far greater range and number of people than would have been likely had it been installed in a campus location. It has also helped to foster links to previous students, who have willingly lent their memories to an Audio History project commenced to memorialise the VU Centenary.
Universities can forget how foreboding a large campus can be to their local communities. A vibrant, welcoming shopfront is much more likely to entice people in, and can be an excellent way of fostering community engagement. This has certainly been the experience of VU@MetroWest.