How student centres can help create ‘sticky campuses’

Atkins’ Helen Groves explores the importance of ‘in-between’ spaces in creating successful campuses

Sticky campus. This phrase, originating from Australia and New Zealand, has now become useful in the UK as an explanation for why we need to develop a wider identity in campuses. The requirement has grown because of the voice of the student as consumer: students have been empowered by their purchasing power when selecting universities, and are choosing places which appeal aesthetically as well as academically.

So what does this mean for us as architects and designers when designing university facilities? When creating spaces which can become the stage for the best student experience, the ‘living’ part is inextricably intertwined with the ‘learning’ part. Universities realise that the best facilities no longer encompass just lecture rooms, labs and teaching spaces, but rather the interstitial spaces which provide a framework of emotional support. It is no longer possible to separate the academic facilities from those more informal elements which become the backdrop for learning.

More and more universities are investing in student centres, a concept which did not exist for the previous generation of students. As student wellbeing is now writ large in the awareness of universities, these facilities are providing the benefit of creating flexibility and variety for students’ individual needs. As our WellBriefing tool is showcasing time and again, this attention to individuality really does matter to students.

At Bournemouth University, a client for which we are designing two new Gateway faculty buildings, we have integrated the spirit of their recently opened Student Centre. Full to capacity from day one, this building wasn’t even on the radar five years ago – they did not know that they needed it. What does it provide physically? Simply a range of comfortable environments to accommodate a whole range of seating for relaxation, social interaction, group learning, eating or study.

Student centres often become the heart of the campus – the void that completes the solid. They are the infill to student life: a place to go to in between the more formal aspects of studying

Student centres often become the heart of the campus – the void that completes the solid. They are the infill to student life: a place to go to in between the more formal aspects of studying. And whilst these spaces do welcome formal study, you are more likely to find a student lounging on a sofa with a laptop and headphones or a group discussing a project informally over a mocha latte. Facilitated by technology, these spaces are becoming more and more important to the university’s ethos. These are the living rooms of universities: a space in between the student residences and the teaching rooms. They succeed in parallel to university libraries, rather than instead of them: they are mutually intertwined and compatible. The main difference is one of formality and privacy, as students still clamour for the printed resources and private carrels of a library on the run up to exam time, but prefer the comfort and informality of a social learning study centre the rest of the time.

Another interesting tangent to this approach is the value that universities are placing on external landscape areas: widening the viewpoint from just buildings to the spaces between them. Whether this is to create gathering areas such as amphitheatres, informal seating in a protected microclimate, or just attractive soft landscaping, universities are investing in the areas which, in essence, tie the identity of the campus together.

The idea of creating campuses where students want to be and buildings that are attractive enough to make students ‘stick’ around, is changing not only how we design, but fundamentally shaping how students will experience university. This is an exciting prospect and one I personally look forward to seeing on more and more university projects. 

Helen Groves is Associate Architect at Atkins Global. For more information, please visit

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