Evolving the estates landscape

Christian Bull looks at the challenges in estate planning and asks, what next?

Universities and their estates teams are facing some of the biggest challenges in recent memory. These include funding pressures, fluctuating student numbers, constant legislative and governmental initiatives, uncertainty associated with tuition fee caps and freezes, the Augar review, Brexit, technological disruptors and growing competition.

This environment is forcing institutions to evolve, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. British universities have long stood the test of time and hold a great sense of pride for the nation. However, to meet some of the above challenges, the way of delivering some capital projects and refurbishments and using certain institutions’ estates and facilities needs to evolve.

The evolution of a traditional student

Traditionally, when someone mentioned a student one might picture an 18 to 21-year-old sitting in a lecture theatre or perhaps studying quietly alone in a library surrounded by books. This stereotype is swiftly becoming challenged as the image of a modern student shifts and diversifies.

Technology and changing work patterns mean that there are more opportunities than ever for the development of flexible forms of learning to fit with individuals’ changing lifestyles and work patterns. Teaching models such as apprenticeships and online learning continue to gain ground. There is a growing acknowledgement that lifelong learning and the ability to reskill are of increasing importance to individuals and the future economy.

Even those who may have fitted nicely into the original mould are showing evolving preferences. Students have a growing expectation of a ‘study anytime, anywhere’ approach. This increasingly involves group learning on a 24/7 basis, outside the traditional operating hours of on-campus libraries and large lecture theatres towards more informal settings such as coffee shops, group study spaces or parks.

Overseas students are particularly digitally dependent and expectant. 

Many competing universities from abroad already have smart campuses where people, places and technology are fully integrated. Students have a growing global outlook and expect universities’ IT to be personalised, contextualised 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.

Competition among universities for the best students and staff is not the only source of pressure. Higher education is becoming more employer-driven with companies offering their own university-level courses and certifications. This is particularly prevalent in the technology sector and among large businesses. 

Certain employers may be more nimble and begin investigating alternative learning models such as AI and virtual teaching as opposed to the conventional undergraduate degree. Universities themselves are also expanding their online courses, support and offering to keep pace.


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Shifting perceptions of what a learning environment looks like

In some ways, these ‘new’ students and ways of learning challenge the tried-and-tested model of physical universities. 

A flexible estate is one of the ways to adapt to meet this challenge. The best approach may not always involve universities building or managing all of their own estate. The traditional model of having costly new buildings in fixed locations for fixed purposes may no longer be the most desirable or, given funding pressures, the most achievable approach. The way learners are working is changing and universities’ estates need to evolve to reflect this.

Although there will always be a need to continue to invest in the university estate to meet competition and attract the best students, staff, partners and funding, what that investment will look like will change. 

It won’t always involve large-scale, expensive single-use new-builds in fixed locations; institutions may begin looking at mixed-use buildings. This might take the form of a co-working space or an office building co-locating with a university’s administrative centre or academic faculties. This could allow the building to be in use year round and 24 hours a day. It could also help to share operating, maintenance and management costs. By focusing on being able to adapt the estate quickly, universities may uncover opportunities to generate income, making their limited resources work harder.

When thinking about such strategies it should always 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. Institutions must be careful not to lose their identity and autonomy in this process. Rather, they should approach and view certain buildings with flexible floor spaces and mixed-use schemes as a potential opportunity for collaboration with third parties.

If we build it, will they still come?

One of the traditional approaches for attracting the best was to regularly invest money into the estate. While it is certainly not true to say that this will not continue or is unnecessary, it was easier when institutions had cash to hand and student numbers were rising.

There is now a greater focus on a return on capital investment, where academic faculties will increasingly have to provide robust business cases for new builds or significant refurbishments. Such cases are likely to consider ongoing maintenance costs and have a focus on maximising occupancy and utilisation.

One interesting approach that we might see grow in popularity, to help share risk and costs, will be universities increasingly delivering certain capital projects with third parties such as academic or commercial partners. Those partners may remain on campus following completion of the new build or refurbishment. This could also help to address another problem regularly mentioned by universities’ estates and senior leadership teams – a lack of interdisciplinary research and collaboration. Given the growing focus on employability and work experience, the opportunities that come from collaborating with third parties will be increasingly attractive and important to students as well.

British universities are one of the UK’s crown jewels and their estates and facilities are their most visible shopfront. Universities’ capital projects also have a real civic mission and benefit to the wider community, often as significant drivers of local regeneration and employment. By recognising and adapting to the above changes and challenges they can retain and enhance their strong global reputation, quality, desirability, respect and brand whilst also being financially sustainable. 


Christian Bull is a partner at Mills and Reeve