How can university estates attract prospective students?

Natalie Trice looks at how an innovative campus, first-class facilities and technology-rich learning spaces help attract new students, both from home and abroad

The allure of traditional red brick buildings and quaint cloisters steeped in history might have impressed prospective students in the past, but the world is changing and, as tuition fees rise and living costs spiral, students want more than a romantic backdrop when it comes to investing in their future. 

The 2016 Higher Expectations survey conducted by YouthSight revealed that 41% of students regarded campus facilities as “very important” in deciding which university to attend and 46% said it was “quite important”.

Forget dank student union buildings and outdated lecture theatres; if institutions want to attract the best students, support staff, lecturers and researchers, investment needs to be made. 

As Professor Steve Egan, vice-president (implementation) at the University of Bath, says, “We want each of our students to have the best possible experience. That is why we continue investing to improve and update what we offer our students, including buildings and capital projects. It is also important that our research facilities are capable of supporting world-class research and that we can attract and retain high-quality staff.” 

The key to success

Getting the right mix of modern teaching facilities, together with inspiring spaces where people study well but also where they enjoy spending time outside of their studies and work life, is very much key to success – and survival – in this competitive industry. 

Abby Moore, head of marketing and business development at Access Creative College, brings this to life when she says, “Traditionally, many of our campuses have actually been underground or in basements, but for our new site, as we broaden our proposition to encompass a host of new industry-leading media and games courses, the high ceilings and creative ambiance which we’ll be able to adjust to specific teaching environments really appealed to us. In addition, we were really drawn to being part of a wider creative/tech hub within the programme development in Bristol City Centre, as we understand the benefits that being with other creative businesses can present to our students.”

Delivering the overall student experience

While the standard of accommodation can win people over, the support that is offered to students… can be a deal-breaker

It isn’t just the location of a university that is important, but also what is available to students if they decided to go there to ensure they have as rich and fulfilling an experience as possible. As architectural director at rg+p James Badley explains: “New campuses need to consider the range of facilities they provide, so that the overall student experience is more aligned with the combination of activities they undertake. For example, is there a café space close to learning or self-study areas? Are gyms, recreation rooms or other leisure facilities nearby? There should also be a bespoke response to the cultural persuasions of the students; with many travelling to study in the UK from abroad, how can we make their living and studying environments more familiar?”

At the University of Bedfordshire, it is hoped that the redeveloped facilities in Luton will put both the university and the town on the map when it comes to studying STEM subjects and contributing to high-level skills growth in the region.

This is a bold statement, but as Professor Jan Domin, executive dean of the faculty of creative arts, technologies and science at the University of Bedfordshire, explains, “Our campus masterplan has already seen us invest £180m in our facilities, which has included the Gateway Building at the Bedford campus, which opened in 2014, and a state-of-the-art library at the Luton campus, which opened in 2016. 

“The new STEM building will allow us to recruit 600 additional students to STEM-related subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate level, as well as our ever-expanding apprenticeships offering, and will open its doors to students at the start of the next academic year, 2019/20.

“Set out over four storeys and incorporating 6,000m2 of teaching and laboratory space, the new building will include state-of-the-art laboratories, including specialist ones. These new facilities, along with our reputation for excellent teaching (we were awarded Silver in the first Teaching Excellent Framework in 2017) and groundbreaking research, will put the university on the map as the place to study a STEM subject for both home and international students.”

Meeting expectation

Students have exacting standards and recognise the link between their environment and their health and wellbeing

These extraordinary courses that can lead to endless opportunities all sound enticing, but for students to be able to learn, they need to be happy, and this means their living spaces need to meet, and quite often exceed, expectations. Forget the brieze block rooms in run-down halls of residence and bedsits that were almost a rite of passage in the past, because they simply no longer make the grade in the 21st-century system. 

Janthea Griffin, head of IconInc, who has properties in Leeds, Liverpool and one opening soon in Lincoln, agrees: “Students have exacting standards and many just won’t settle for low-quality or substandard accommodation as they recognise the link between their environment and their health and wellbeing. IconInc developments feature spacious communal areas and an unrivalled range of facilities and amenities, such as a home cinema, group study rooms, a games zone, fully equipped gym, sauna and steam rooms as well as a specially fitted Mac Zone for on-site research and studying.”

Professor Steve Egan adds to this point: “This year, we opened Polden, purpose-built postgraduate accommodation, consisting of 293 en-suite bedrooms in 37 flats across two buildings arranged around a landscaped courtyard. This high-specification building is located on the quiet west side of our Claverton Down Campus, a few minutes’ walk from the library, students’ union and teaching spaces.”

Help and guidance

While the standard of accommodation can win people over, the support that is offered to students, many of whom are away for the first time, and are dealing with huge life adjustments, can be a deal-breaker. 

As James Badley states, “Campuses can make themselves stand out by placing emphasis on the support available, not just on the academic side but in terms of management, counselling and security. Knowing who is available for advice and guidance can help students adapt better and feel they are part of a caring community.”

Janthea Griffin adds, “IconInc offers students the chance to network with each other and form lifelong connections and friendships. The international community within the properties also offers students the chance to find friends not only to travel with but also to visit during the summer months, knowing that they will see a familiar face wherever they go.”

While a return on investment isn’t always immediate and it can take time to see recruitment numbers rise, the benefits are clear. “Our open day attendance, even in a relatively blank space, has been better than ever as people are really keen to learn about the plans for the new build,” says Abby Moore.

Professor Steve Egan adds, “We know from surveying arriving students that our facilities and appearance of the campus are important factors to a significant proportion of students when choosing to apply to Bath.”

We have seen that substantial investments are being made by institutions around the country, and while historical buildings might be able to stand the test of time, it is probable that the willingness and ability to offer students, staff and researchers innovative learning and living environments may well be the key to success in the future. 

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