University real estate, targeting investment to best effect

The most recent annual Student Academic Experience Survey contains important pointers for directors of estates and all those with responsibility for targeting capital expenditure in higher education. In a time of rapid change it also highlights the continuing importance of some more familiar fundamentals….

The 2019 survey of some 14,000 undergraduates was carried out jointly by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE.

The headline statistic is that student perceptions of receiving “good value for money” have risen for the second year in a row to 41%. There was a sharp decline after 2012 but this figure continues an improving trend and shows a clear divide from the 29% figure for perception of “poor value for money”.

Given the critical importance of the student experience to an institution’s ability to compete for and attract students, this statistic is clearly an important indicator.

A more detailed analysis makes interesting reading. A strong correlation emerges between higher levels of satisfaction and not only teaching quality, but also facilities and resources and the campus and the built environment. Equally, those “residential” students living in halls or close to campus were more likely to describe themselves as receiving “good” or “very good” value for money than those students living at home or “commuting” who find it harder to integrate into student life.

Accordingly, despite the development of the virtual environment and the rapid changes we are seeing in the ways in which learning is delivered and received, conventional face to face teaching and a supportive campus environment remain highly important to students.

This analysis is underlined further by the findings on students’ views on how institutions can make best use of tuition fees. The top three priorities for expenditure are teaching facilities, student support services and campus development. Expenditure on institutional profile raising and even investing in the local community came a very distant bottom in the list.

These results are also significant in the context of the continuing debate on the pros and cons of capital expenditure by institutions and reinforce the findings of previous surveys directly linking the quality of the overall student and learning experience and therefore an institution’s ability to attract the best students and staff, to the quality and nature of the estate.

As a cautionary note however the survey also found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the overwhelming factor in perceptions of “poor value” amongst respondents was tuition fees. Institutions need to continue to invest in their estates therefore but that investment must be cost effective and properly targeted to areas that will best enhance the student experience and students’ perception of receiving value for money.

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