University estates: adapt to attract

At the Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference on 11 December, we considered investment trends, smart and sustainable design and the changing face of learning environments in the development of university and college estates.

A university’s estate is one of its key assets in attracting new students and the fees they bring with them. Students see inspiring environments as evidence that their university truly values them. But estates must be attractive to all to ensure student intakes remain diverse. Clearly, universities face competing pressures when planning estate development, including financial and technological challenges, but the fundamental requirement is that the estate must enhance the student experience and meet the students’ expectations.

It is apparent that the didactic “sage-on-stage” form of teaching has fallen out of favour. In its place, we are seeing student-led learning and “flipped classrooms” (using face to face teaching time to discuss ideas the students have already self-taught). Further, the rise of technology in remote learning, AI, virtual reality and even the holographic lecture theatre – as already seen at Harvard – is also having a huge impact on what sort of space is needed within an estate, and intelligent campuses, as promoted by Jisc, are coming. These campuses can provide data and “intelligence” to students, so they can make the best use of facilities on offer.

As a result of these issues, shared learning spaces and large flexible floor space will undoubtedly feature prominently in new campus designs.

It is becoming increasingly clear that this flexibility and adaptability of the estate is key. Not only must development be done in a way which allows future adaptation as technology advances, but we are seeing many of our clients repurposing their estates, with mixed-use facilities shared with the local community and businesses.  This engagement is so important – universities must support their civic surroundings as ultimately, both will benefit (and without this synergy, both can fail).  Options for sharing space for non-teaching/research uses should be considered at an early stage of estate planning, to ensure that all the necessary planning and other consents are in place to allow the best possible use of the space.

Another key consideration for universities must be the sustainability of their estate. Universities are critical in providing leadership on sustainability issues. Whilst retrofitting and achieving net or even absolute zero carbon can seem expensive, universities know that they must consider more than just financial costs. There is currently a huge variation across the sector in addressing sustainability issues, but it is clear that all universities are thinking about it. The universities able to make the biggest steps will be those where their senior leadership teams engage. A collaborative approach is necessary – the university working with the local planning authority (particularly those universities needing to adapt historic, possibly listed, buildings) to ensure carbon reduction commitments can be met.

Students are driving change on campus – they are looking for flexible, well-connected space which is sustainable and meets challenging environmental targets. Universities must adapt to attract. The university’s estate is one of its key assets and so the university must be sure it is used to its full potential.

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