Situated in small towns, rural universities are residential sites where students can live, study and breathe in the clean air all at the same time. They have created a new type of campus where, for the first time, the countryside is the backdrop for studies at the highest level.
Rural universities originated in the United States, where the creation of immense multidisciplinary campuses have meant that universities have distanced themselves from the city centres. 'Birds are singing, the lawn is green and there is a gentle breeze blowing. Students walk to class, they sit and read under the trees or play sport.' This is the idyllic image sold by Bethany College in West Virginia, one of the first rural universities founded in 1840.
In Europe, the first faculties that moved to a country location were those related to nature, like Biology, Environmental Studies or studies such as Agriculture, Forestry Engineering or Mining. Thus, it seems that in Europe two different types of rural university are being created. On the one hand there are macro-campuses that cannot fit inside the big cities and on the other, there are the small and prestigious schools with tough selection processes.
One example of the macro-campus is Wageningen in Holland, a famous agricultural university that specialises in natural sciences. The city has around 35, 000 inhabitants of which 7, 000 are employed at the university.
Elite graze in the countryside
At the other end of the spectrum is the 'École Cantonale d'Art du Valais' in Sierre, Switzerland. At most there are 150 students. Aurélien Collas, 26 years old, left his native Paris to study a Master of Arts in this small town of 17, 000 inhabitants whose principal activity was rural tourism and the production of wine. 'It's an ideal place to go hill walking or skiing in my spare time.' however he confesses that most spend their time to 'having fun with the other students or on the playstation.' He lives at the same college as his friends, where accommodation costs 258 euros a month. Counting those both years of the Master of Art in Public Sphere, there are 15 students in total. Entrance exams are very selective, nevertheless, once admitted, and after paying taxes of 2, 700 euros a year, students are guaranteed the best arts education with professors that have come from the US, Canada, South Africa, Mexico and Australia.
'A rural university is not the place for you if you want anonymity in a class of 400 students,' explains Jamey Temple, public relations of Cumberland College in New Zealand. In this type of campus there is more 'contact' between professors and their students 'that is not common in an urban setting.' This is because the classes are usually much smaller, and also relationships are much closer because students live together in the place where they also study. However, like everything, living and studying in the middle of the countryside also has its inconveniences - like the lack of public transport. For Aurélien, getting to Sierre 'is not very complicated. There is a train line, although it is quite expensive.' Small towns have relatively bad transport links. But what Aurélien really misses in towns such as Sierre 'is the possibility of disappearing in the crowd of people that there is in a big city,' although, as an artist, 'in Paris you are one amongst a million others and in Berlin or London, you are just one more Parisian.'