Is the physical campus dead?

In the run up to the past year, and even more so during the last tumultuous twelve months, there has been lots of commentary announcing the death of the physical university campus. The future of teaching and learning is (largely) online. Is this too simplistic and binary?


Well, the HE estate is certainly facing unprecedented challenges.  The first, and most obvious, is Covid or, to be positive, life after Covid.  Whilst the UK is making incredible progress with its vaccination programme, universities and their facilities are global communities.  It won’t just be a case of flicking a switch – now, on 17 May or after 21 June (the next key stages of the country’s release from lockdown) – and life on campus returns to how it used to be. There will need to be, and many institutions’ estates teams have already started this, both a practical and a hearts and minds exercise.  This is around ensuring the campus is Covid-compliant – a safe space – and promoting that.  Use and maintenance of the campus and facilities will move even higher up estates directors’ to-do lists, particularly around enhanced cleaning and hygiene protocols.  This is likely to become a growing expectation of staff, students and stakeholders and will help to drive confidence.  To sustain this in the medium to long term this requires money, with greater resources for FM and operations budgets.

As we know though, the sector is hardly flushed with cash at the moment.  At this year’s virtual Association of University Directors of Estates conference, some analyses suggested one in six universities potentially have insufficient net current assets to cover deficits.  One in three have less than thirty days cash or cash equivalent available. Financial pressure is therefore the next challenge – something obviously made worse by Covid, the third term rent refunds many universities have offered (as well as growing pressure from students for further refunds), the reduction and freezes in tuition fee income (particularly from overseas) and the even greater tightening of the government’s public spending to pay back the national deficit.  Other income from catering, conferencing and wider accommodation has dropped significantly, whilst expenditure on making the campus Covid secure has rocketed.  This is also in the context of some financial challenges that were there pre-Covid and haven’t disappeared such as fluctuating student numbers, growing regulation, increased competition (not just nationally, but internationally, from countries such as the USA, Australia and beyond), post-Brexit uncertainty around some funding sources such as Horizon 2020 in the long-term and other research grants, pension costs and a lack of demand for certain courses. 

Benefits of online education

For many courses, institutions and learners, online teaching will grow to be one of the most attractive and desirable routes.  The growth of part-time, older, working students particularly benefit from this and it can also help to widen access to HE.  Undoubtedly, a digital platform assists universities to have global reach.  But, this doesn’t apply to all learners across the board.  According to Universities UK’s recent research, almost 60% of students and recent graduates felt the social element of the physical campus helped them to broaden their life experience, become more independent and confident and develop skills like teamwork and time management. 

Revolution or evolution of the physical campus?

Surely then, a combination of the fall-out from Covid, particularly with the huge rise in online, remote learning – moocs on steroids – and the significant financial challenges now and in the future – mean the physical HE estate is facing revolution and death, with more challenges than opportunities?  I think this is too simplistic. It underestimates the human side of the HE experience – something that is likely to be valued even more as we gradually emerge from the pandemic and, yet again, unlock the campus, facilities and accommodation.  Certainly, as the lockdowns have gone on for longer than many originally anticipated, students’ views and appetites for full online learning and socialising have varied and some early enthusiasm for it has waned.  For example, Unite Students recently polled 500 British students and 500 parents for their thoughts on Covid, student safety and returning to campus.  Almost nine out of ten, 89%, of students were keen to return to campus once safe.  79% of students believed that living away from home, or being on campus, is as key to their university experience as lectures and tutorials.  Only 14% said they prefer full, permanent remote learning. 78% of parents were concerned about disruption to the social side of the university experience for their children. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) carried out research from a different perspective.  It looked at how Covid affected HE students during the 2020 autumn term. Over half (53%) of students reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their social experience during the autumn term.  From three different surveys conducted during November 2020, the ONS found that more than 50% of students reported that their wellbeing and mental health have worsened due to the pandemic.

The future’s bright, the future’s…..blended

This all suggests that estates teams will still need to invest in learning and living spaces to attract some of the best staff, students, academic and commercial partners. 

How universities plan, develop and manage some of their learning spaces will evolve, but not disappear.  Covid may well have accelerated that evolution, but the need to invest will still be there in most cases – the investment may just be different.

Flexibility will take on even greater prominence in master planning.  This adaptability could take numerous forms.  For example, there will be some repurposing of parts of universities’ estates and facilities such as for co-working and pop-up spaces.  There may also be an increase in the number of mixed use schemes on campus, possibly involving housing, start-ups and spin-outs.

We shouldn’t underestimate the growing green agenda and the impact on university estates.  The sustainability drive towards net zero carbon targets and public funding increasingly being linked to such targets, is both a challenge and an opportunity. 

Particularly for those institutions facing real financial difficulties and/or for those having a  significant increase in virtual teaching and learning, the sector’s traditional approach of each university spending significant funds on major refurbishments or capital projects comprising fixed learning and living spaces, in fixed locations, for fixed purposes, will be revisited.  Certain other functions such as administrative centres, often located in expensive city centre locations, may also be moved to more cost effective areas.  The usual approach of institutions then managing and maintaining these costly facilities alone, may also reduce. 

Funding pressures will mean that the risk and reward of delivering and then managing some university estates may be increasingly shared with third parties such as companies, other charities, research organisations and public sector stakeholders – the recent use by the NHS of some universities’ medical facilities and buildings during Covid for research and as vaccination and testing centres, admittedly on a short term basis, shows what cross-over and opportunities there are for greater collaboration on campus.  Some of these third party collaborators may become more permanent, involving them staying on campus, utilising and contributing towards the delivery and upkeep of shared learning spaces.  This could also tap into and advance the employability agenda for universities and their students.

Financial challenges and a stronger appetite for digital education in some areas, also mean that the planning of future learning spaces, as well as the spaces themselves, will evolve.  Virtual learning, with strong technology and wifi, and the delivery of digital teaching via classrooms and lecture theatres, will take on a greater prominence in master planning.  The fact that students were already digitally dependent and expectant before the pandemic, has accelerated further within the past year.  The expansion of the intelligent campus where the role of digital, and investment in it, will continue to grow for many institutions to ensure they remain competitive and relevant.  It will also be a growing tool for institutions’ estates teams to manage their campus more efficiently, flexibly and sustainably.

Another increasing feature of HE estates master planning will be a return on investment.  As part of this, universities’ estates and senior leadership teams will need to place greater emphasis, not only on the costs of delivering large-scale capital projects, but also on ongoing maintenance expenses, maximising utilisation, with an ability to adapt and co-share land, buildings and learning spaces for future and third party use.  For example, when not being used for learning or teaching, or perhaps as part of that, space could be used for functions, pop-ups, conferences, exhibitions and community events.  This may also generate an income, for instance, by lettings parts and hiring out other spaces for a capital return. 

This may also be increasingly attractive to companies and other organisations who, due to their own increased cost pressures and remote working and meetings, may also value the flexibility and shared cost. 

It’s therefore clear that a key part of the ‘student experience’ for many is the physical campus, where the integration, retention and the character and ethos of an institution is delivered and shines through. 

So, where does this leave us? 

I don’t think the physical HE campus is dead.  It’s more nuanced than that:  talk about blended learning and teaching is more realistic – with part physical and part remote for many institutions – more of a strong evolution, where digital meets physical. There is also the political landscape, which provides some opportunities for universities and their estate.  For example, the government’s commitment to UK science & research and the UK Industrial Strategy, can also be viewed in the context of the government’s levelling-up agenda.  As many universities in such areas are often the main drivers of local regeneration, employment and opportunity, this is likely to be a growing trend subject, of course, to funding.   After all, the adaptability of some parts of the campus such as engineering and science labs, and full or major remote learning for all universities, may not always be desirable or achievable. A digital-only environment in the fight against Covid and the research around vaccines, where universities have played key roles, would not have been possible without the hard buildings and facilities.





Our content explained

Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

Mills & Reeve Sites navigation
A tabbed collection of Mills & Reeve sites.
My Mills & Reeve navigation
Subscribe to, or manage your My Mills & Reeve account.
My M&R


Register for My M&R to stay up-to-date with legal news and events, create brochures and bookmark pages.

Existing clients

Log in to your client extranet for free matter information, know-how and documents.


Mills & Reeve system for employees.