Fifth of universities expect post-pandemic teaching to be half online, survey suggests

Figure comes from a survey of senior managers in HE professional services about the future of university estates

A fifth of universities expect teaching after the pandemic to be a fifty-fifty split between online and in-person instruction, suggests a new survey of university estates and professional services managers.

The survey results are published by the Association for University Directors of Estates (AUDE) in a new report on the changes underway in university campuses.

The survey gleaned responses from senior managers at 54 universities. Respondents included directors of estates from the AUDE Space Management Special Interest Group and members of the Higher Education Space Management Group (HESMG), which comprises senior managers in university finance, policy, IT and learning services.

The survey found that 19% of respondents thought that the balance of face-to-face and online education would be “half and half”. Three per cent said teaching would be “fully face to face”, with a further 57% predicting 60-85% of teaching would be in-person teaching . Fourteen per cent said it was “too early to tell” what balance to expect in years to come.

The report – Blended Working in the Higher Education Sector: A review of the post-pandemic university workplace – aims to understand the future of university operations to analyse how the estates might “translate these concepts” into “a practical and actionable vision”.

The survey suggests that 40% of universities are changing their policies to expand at-home working, and 10% have already implemented part-time at-home working policies. In preparation for a “blended workplace”, a third (36%) are consulting staff and one in ten (9%) collecting data. Just 2% anticipated that there would be no change to workplace policies following the pandemic. Fifty-nine per cent of those surveyed suggested these new policies would be implemented by December 2021, with 74% predicting policies would be in place before the end of the 2021/21 academic year. In over half of cases (55%), universities have set campus-wide blended working policies and over a third (36%) are doing so on a case by case basis.

Change in policy of the scale that is envisaged involves a real shift in corporate understanding and that can’t happen instantly. There are many studies on how workplaces will change after the upheaval of the pandemic, but few are specific to higher education
– Jane White, AUDE

More than half of respondents indicated that “senior management is committed to making changes” to the university workplace, including one area identified by respondents as particularly sensitive for staff: individual offices. According to a survey by architects Hassell, academics are significantly less likely to claim their own office in the UK (55%) than in the US (83%).

A third of respondents (34%) said that between 60 and 100% of academic staff pre-Covid-19 worked from an individual office. The report questioned if academic staff could “justify an exclusive space on-campus” if working off-site half the working week.

“The academic office has always been a prized and private space where confidential conversations, deep thinking, research and administration tasks can and do get done. They also provide convenient storage for books, files, equipment and other academic paraphernalia,” the report highlighted, adding: “In the fierce competition for academic talent, they are sometimes seen as a useful enticement.”

Given this attachment, the report found that a significant minority of the senior professional services staff polled (35%) reported that senior management “is cautious and will seek further feedback” before making changes to things like office allocations.

In most cases, change to the campus is driven by the need to utilise space more effectively, according to 71% of survey respondents. This efficiency could relate to reduced spending for infrastructure projects or new emissions and sustainability targets. The health and wellbeing of staff (52%), environmental sustainability (36%) and financial efficiency (34%) were the other facts most frequently cited by respondents asked to name what was driving campus developments.

Around seven in 10 said less private office space was required, while around six and seven in ten, respectively, said their university needed more student study and social areas.

Over 70% of senior managers said IT systems are ready for blended working, 65% say software is widely, or very nearly so, available anywhere it is needed, and just under half are confident video links will be operational. However, just 15% think room booking tools are reliable, and only 5% think tools to monitor space usage are proven to work.

“Change in policy of the scale that is envisaged involves a real shift in corporate understanding and that can’t happen instantly. There are many studies on how workplaces will change after the upheaval of the pandemic, but few are specific to higher education,” said Jane White, AUDE executive director.

“Academic workplaces are different to commercial offices, and academic activity varies hugely between faculties and across the academic year. Overall, respondents to the survey envisage fewer individual or small offices and an increased need for technology-enabled spaces, such as smaller rooms for synchronous online teaching and meetings.”

Dave Beavis, space manager at the University of Exeter, said on behalf of AUDE’s Space Management Group: “[Eighty-nine per cent] of respondents indicated that they intend to be operating some degree of blended working practices by the end of 2022, although the rate of change to adopt these practices is likely to differ widely by institution, dictated in part by the success of any pilots and the roll-out of supporting infrastructure and associated policies.

“The report identifies that most (79%) survey respondents believed they would benefit from a ‘space dividend’ after adopting blended working practices, and furthermore most intend to repurpose much of this space to an alternative use. For many institutions this will likely be student facing spaces as, overall, the survey indicated institutions believe they will require more study and social spaces, but less individual and small offices.”

Read more: Quarter of universities ‘barely started’ net-zero planning, survey suggests

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