Campus & commercial fields increasingly inform uni strategy

Less than 10 years ago a Director of Campus/Commercial Services was virtually unknown in UK unis. Now they’re crucial to the student experience

Universities have long provided accommodation, catering, conferencing and sport facilities for their students but what is changing is the way in which these services are becoming recognised as strategically important to the customer journey. Central to this transition are CUBO members – campus and commercial services staff.

Historically the role of campus/commercial services professionals has suffered from the perception that it was all about “chips, bars and conferencing,” with the breadth and depth of the role not being appreciated. University structures presented challenges with many areas operated in silos and managed very much with a single service focus.

The increasing value of the Campus/Commercial Services Director is now being recognised by many institutions. It is not just their steadily growing portfolios, with responsibility for a huge range of services from catering and sport to accommodation and nursery facilities, that is responsible for this shift, but also a growing recognition amongst savvy VCs that the student experience and their customer journey must be streamlined to provide the best possible campus experience.

In recent years, the fast-paced changes in higher education and rapid growth of digital technology has brought an urgent need for change. With increasing competition from external providers and rising student expectations – many services at their fingertips through a simple phone call – all services on campus are having to raise their game.

It is also not only the students who are clued-up customers these days. With so much of daily life now online, parents are also more involved than ever in the choices their children are making. From virtual open days, 360-degree tours of accommodation, to eating, exercising and academic support, everything is now recorded and shared on social media. More and more scrutiny inevitably leads to a drive for higher standards and much work is being done to join up the user experience and the quality of services. CUBO members are at the forefront of this important work.

CUBO’s Business Manager of the Year 2017, Calum Maclachlan, is a prime example.  Over the last nine years in his role as Head of Commercial Services at the University of Aberdeen, Calum has overseen the successful transformation of catering and commercial activity from a service held back in an institutionalised past, to a modern, forward-thinking provider and positive contributor to the University’s campus life ambitions.

Calum finds his biggest challenge is to bring a high-quality offer and service to a university environment where operating costs remain higher than privately operated commercial enterprises and selling price points are lower. He feels the challenge to maintain surpluses and high levels of service provision to Scottish universities, in particular, has been significant. The question mark of independence and student fee funding which sees Scottish universities receive a fraction of the student fee revenues enjoyed by UK universities, have both contributed to squeeze commercial revenues and student numbers. Calum believes that maintaining a tight grasp on quality, innovation, service provision and margins has been his key to success.

Calum’s most recent project saw the completion of a new £7m student central services building, Head Space, which demonstrates the increasingly recognised need to work collaboratively across the institution and to streamline the services on offer to students. Head Space delivered a bar/brasserie bistro; a convenience retail unit, meeting rooms; a community lounge and training kitchen school for food preparation classes; games space, interactive media dining tables, cinema and theatre presentations, music and theatrical performance space, support and welfare facilities, comprehensive self-development and improving self-resilience programmes. Calum worked closely with colleagues from departments within Student Life to successfully deliver a great social and learning experience alongside a comprehensive pastoral and student welfare safety net.

There is a growing recognition, as in any service-based experience, that taking a joined-up approach and bringing together all elements – from buying a coffee, to checking bus timetables, to downloading the latest lecture – enables the provision of a more integrated service and a better overall user experience. Universities are responding to this and seeking to achieve a more joined up approach by first looking internally at their own strategies and departmental structures. One response has seen new ‘Directors of Campus Life’ roles starting to emerge, roles which combine several areas to achieve a more streamlined attitude to facilities and commercial services management. Universities are thinking through the customer journey and adapting their structures.

Stewart Ross, Director of Commercial and Campus Support Services at the University of Leeds and Chair of CUBO, is excited about this change and the opportunities ahead. He believes that the student experience and customer journey is now strategically important to universities. He sees the skill sets of CUBO members and commercial services professionals placing them in a key position to lead and influence an institutional approach to customer services.

CUBO’s Business Manager of the Year 2017, Calum Maclachlan

For Stewart, the siloed departmental structures of universities between providers of facilities and services on campus and the academic community, will need to be broken down in the future, so that universities can realise their aspirations of a first-class HE experience. Where commercial and campus directors operate teaching space, as an example, he believes it is vitally important to understand the evolution of pedagogy, particularly the growth in digital technology, and how to respond to it. At this own institution, the Leeds Collaborative Lecture Theatre project has already started this journey. The interactive spaces were designed with the input of academic, student and commercial, and campus services. User satisfaction scores are above 80% and the project has just been named Education Project of the Year in the AV News Awards. To be ultimately successful campus/commercial services professionals need to work hand-in-hand with academics to design teaching spaces and services for the students of tomorrow.

Jo Hardman, Head of Commercial Services at Lancaster University, is firmly in agreement that greater collaboration across the university will be the way forward. He expects to see improved communication and coordination between commercial services and other functions in universities to deliver a more holistic student experience. He expects to see more private providers entering the market and an increasing presence of high-street brands on campuses. Increased competition is inevitable and improving standards must be embraced.

When questioned about his key objective as Head of Commercial Services, Jo Hardman summed it up neatly as: “Making the campus an inspiring place to be and making a sustainable income whilst doing so.” Returning a surplus to the University is highly desirable, but it is recognised that in some areas decisions are made for the benefit of the student experience above profit. Maintaining this understanding is essential. This is where CUBO members provide vitally important skills and experience that enables them to shape service provision and fulfil student needs. It is a finely tuned balance, to provide the best student-centric services as well as develop an efficiently run business that is able to return a surplus.

Despite the uncertain political times and challenges ahead, the mood amongst CUBO members is buoyant and optimistic. Always looking ahead for new ideas and solutions to improve campus life, the CUBO members’ forum is buzzing with questions ranging from cashless systems and credit card charges to feasibility studies, consultancy recommendations, safeguarding and residence life. Rarely is a question not met with enthusiastic replies offering helpful advice and good examples from other member institutions. As campus and commercial services skills are becoming recognised as strategically important to universities, CUBO members, in their roles as Directors of campus/commercial services and other senior positions, have the expertise to ensure that the campus experience delivers seamless learning, services and facilities for the benefit of all.

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