Change, challenge and opportunity are coming to the real estate landscape in HE

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Universities and their estates teams are facing some of the biggest challenges in recent memory.

These challenges include:

  • Budgetary pressures involving growing revenue versus expenditure tensions at some institutions.
  • Skills and workforce shortages (possibly compounded by concerns over a post-EU UK and potential limits on free movement).
  • Constant change (legislative and governmental initiatives eg, TEF, REF, the Augar review, OfS requirements, forthcoming changes to the accounting rules, further health and safety laws following the Grenfell tragedy, etc).
  • Fluctuating student numbers.
  • Growing competition.
  • Rapid technological growth.
  • Inefficient use of buildings and facilities.
  • Uncertainty surrounding Brexit (it had to be mentioned!)

Given these challenges, how will the property landscape in HE change and need to evolve?

There are some emerging trends and predictions, largely driven by financial pressures and speedy technological change:

  • A potential reduction in full-time undergraduate “traditional” student numbers – but possibly seeing more part-time, lifelong, online, flexible learning, apprenticeships and teaching at/from, possibly fewer, universities.
  • Higher education may become more employer-driven, involving teaching by companies, particularly technology organisations and larger employers. Employers may look to alternative models to the conventional undergraduate degree. With the rise of AI, falling job security and a growth in micro-businesses, is HE and its estate responding quickly enough?
  • The re-purposing of parts of the existing estate/facilities at certain universities eg, for offices, co-living/working spaces and mixed use schemes. This doesn’t mean institutions will necessarily lose their identity and autonomy – it’s just a broader, more open and different way of thinking by focussing on being able to adapt the estate quickly and flexibly to make (and generate) money and resources go further.
  • How universities spend money on their estate needs to be re-imagined. There will continue to be increased pressure on costs (the Augar review in England could have a real impact on affordability) and hence quality of service and facilities to students. Flexibility is therefore key. This may not involve universities always building or managing their own estate and the “traditional” model of having costly (new) buildings in fixed locations for fixed purposes may no longer always be desirable. The way learners are working is changing and universities’ estates need to evolve to reflect this. Students have a growing preference for, and expectations of, a “study anytime, anywhere” approach. This increasingly involves group study on a 24/7 basis and informal learning. It should be remembered that universities’ buildings and facilities are part of the student appeal, they provide a sense of belonging and play an important role in students’ overall life experience at university. There will be more smaller buildings, flexible floor spaces, further mixed use schemes involving co-located facilities and collaboration areas with third parties. Essentially, there will be a greater focus on the return on capital investment: academic faculties will increasingly have to provide robust business cases for new builds/significant re-purposing schemes. Such cases should include ongoing maintenance costs and a focus on maximising occupancy and utilisation. Advances in data collection, analysis and technology will help with this and will assist in assessing (and responding to) students’ evolving working styles and preferences.
  • Universities shouldn’t always automatically respond to financial challenges by selling land and buildings. Overall rises in land values, particularly in certain city centre locations, could mean that once land has gone, it’s gone. It may be prohibitively, and disproportionately, expensive if institutions need to buy (back) land in the future.

The future campus

Although there will always be a need to continue to invest in the university estate to meet competition and attract the best learners, staff, partners and funding, what that investment will look like will change. It won’t always involve large-scale, expensive single-use new builds. Expansion of the estate isn’t always right or desirable – if the above challenges require a temporary “pause and reflect” approach among estates directors and senior university management, then that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Broadening of estates strategies

University estates teams regularly mention a lack of interdisciplinary research and collaboration as a real problem to address. Institutions’ estates masterplans not only need to be linked to universities’ wider strategies, they should also increasingly involve others such as the NHS and combined authorities. Not least to access/share funding but also to foster greater partnership working for the benefit of the university, its students, staff and stakeholders. This will also help to develop and enhance universities’ civic mission and promote the valuable role institutions play in our local, national and increasingly international communities.

Technology and the estate

Alongside funding pressures, the other challenge and change affecting HEIs’ estates is the digital revolution, where the flow of information will impact on the delivery of teaching and research. Overseas students in particular are “digitally dependent and expectant”. Many competing universities from abroad already have “smart” campuses where people, place and technology are integrated. Students have a growing global outlook and expect universities’ IT to be personalised, contextualised (to facilitate social interaction, be data location specific and with 5G) and measured, to both assess occupancy and help to enhance the student experience. The growth of the virtual lecture theatre (already featured at Harvard and Stanford universities) will continue. Are UK universities doing enough to create “smart” campuses by blending the physical and digital?

British universities are one of the UK’s “crown jewels”, with their estate and facilities being their most visible shopfront. By recognising and adapting to the above changes and challenges they can retain and enhance their strong global reputation, quality, desirability, respect and brand while also being financially sustainable.

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