Building for the future
With current generations of fee-paying students expecting more than ever before from their campuses, today's estate teams have a new set of challenges
Managing and maintaining a university campus can often feel like spinning a selection of priceless and arbitrarily wobbly plates – obviously everyone wants the best of the best in their facilities and campuses, but without an infinite well of resources that’s not always possible… so how do those in positions of power prioritise the needs of the university and the students? How do institutions pick between various essentials to keep students happy and healthy?
Students are acutely aware of their status as fee-paying customers in a crowded market – as Tom Laskey, Business Development Director at facilities management company Sodexo, noted: “There is much more of a consumer mindset. Students expect a greater degree of personalisation, expert service provision, and interaction with services and service providers.”
The most obvious way to figure out where to start is to consult students directly, either through surveys or response forms or, in the case of the University of Portsmouth, through a series of open meetings with high-level staff, including the Vice-Chancellor.
The future is inherently unpredictable, but universities are finding that they can mitigate the issue by working closely with the student body and staff. From this universities are discovering a number of areas worth keeping an eye on: the rise of facilities for mixed student and public use, the rise of initiatives to help boost employability, and a rise in social elements (especially in UK students).
Leeds Arts University, which is currently constructing a major £22m building and facilities expansion, has sought a considerable amount of feedback from students as they embark on their ambitious project.
“We have consulted widely with all staff and students to make our building future-proof,” said a spokesperson for the university. “Feedback from the NSS [National Student Survey] and WhatUni awards has shown how highly our students regard our current facilities… to continue improving and developing these will help us to ensure we are keeping up with industry standards.”
The University’s 63,500 square foot extension forms part of their ambitious masterplan. Since being awarded full university status last year, making it the first specialist arts university in North England, they are looking to grow to meet new demands from current and future students. The facilities will enable Leeds Arts to offer more educational programmes and assist students’ learning with specialist studios and libraries – something that the university has done in response to students’ concerns.
Study is a vital pillar of university life – obviously – but Leeds Arts, like many universities, has found that the social aspects of student life can be equally important. They have helped foster a “creative community”, which the students have responded well to, and in the new facility there are spaces that help bolster that feeling of community. Leeds Art continued: “Our public exhibition gallery and coffee shop provide space for students and the public to socialise, whilst the increase in space, including designated student breakout spaces and a new 230-seat auditorium, will provide students with further opportunities to work collaboratively across the creative curriculum. Our new enterprise centre for students will also improve engagement with industry and the wider community.”
As part of their masterplans, a number of universities are also throwing open their doors to the wider public. Leeds Arts are doing so, and Canterbury Christ Church are another – they’re hoping to restore historic features for the local community, including the former Pilgrim’s Trail from St Martin’s Church through to Canterbury Cathedral and the Prison Quarter, with a heritage centre for “exhibitions… of local significance”. The University of Edinburgh is also working on similar ideas in their massive new facility in the city’s Category A-listed former Old Royal Infirmary.
The Edinburgh Futures Institute is due to open in 2021, and the University hopes it will become a leading centre of learning and research – one of the most important of its kind in Europe. The building will also be open to the public, who will be able to enjoy the use of a large underground space open for events and lectures. Various local groups are also set to be involved with the courses on offer, with Professor Paolo Quattrone, Dean of Special Projects at the University Of Edinburgh, saying: “The programmes will be developed in partnership with local communities, industry and government. Scholarships will be offered to make access open to the brightest minds.”
Working on the frontline are companies such as Sodexo, who provide catering, accommodation, and facilities management to almost 30 universities across the UK and Ireland. They are a key part of a university’s masterplan and can offer insight that might otherwise be out of reach. Sodexo runs a biennial University Lifestyle Survey and has returned some fascinating findings about life and services on campus. In particular, they discovered that “the UK’s students were more interested in social factors, community, perceptions of friendliness, and having a strong social fabric, rather than just the purely academic output of their course.”
This echoes the sentiments of Leeds Arts and others. The trend is clear: students want a strong social element at their university, with a variety of clubs and societies and well-kitted campus facilities available.
There’s also a growing need for real action on employability (especially in the creative arts). This has seen Leeds Arts University base major decisions on getting students ready for life after their course. The Leeds Art spokesperson continued: “As employability becomes increasingly important for students attending university, we need to ensure that they have access to the facilities and support the need to progress into the creative professions. Our challenge now is looking at increasing how we provide opportunities for students to engage with regional businesses and the wider communities of Leeds on campus.”
Edinburgh have reached similar conclusions, although theirs has come after feedback from employers themselves – they’re developing programmes in the new facility to accommodate these results. Professor Quattrone explained: “Key players recruiting our students have shown a clear interest in graduates that can think laterally and interpret the world by mixing data science with the humanities, creativity, and the social and political dimension of decision-making.”
As time goes on universities could find themselves forced to focus further on pervasive social issues such as sexual assault and mental health care – issues which have been thrust into the spotlight in recent years, and in 2018 are part of important public conversations. Campuses will of course have their own provisions already in place, but as stigma around these topics dissolves students may demand more.
Cardiff University is already acting; as part of their Centre For Student Life on their Cathays Campus (“the biggest campus upgrade in a generation”), they will be “transforming the way we support student life by investing in improvements to our support services, including mental health and wellbeing.”
To lob another spanner into the works, fees are under intense scrutiny right now with the government supposedly planning as-yet-unspecified action, so in the long term the power balance could shift once more. But as it stands, universities are in the position where they need to listen to fee-paying students, assess the needs thoroughly, and then act accordingly. Preparing for the future and creating a masterplan that keeps a generation of students healthy and happy is no easy feat at the best of times, but to help things along communicating with those who will be using the facilities on a daily basis is key.