Researchers probe future of university campus

The project launches at a time of significant change and challenge for the university physical estate

Do university campuses deliver better student outcomes?

That’s the question facing a new research project, supported by the Universities UK (UUK), the Office for Students (OfS) and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

The project gets underway at a time of significant change for the university physical estate – which faces a revolution in the post-Covid technological era.

Led by AUDE (the Association of University Directors of Estates), HEDQF (the Higher Education Design Quality Forum) and construction firm Willmott Dixon, the major three-year study aims to substantiate the belief that campus investments create “measurable” improvements on student experience and attainment and research output.

With no “cohesive body of evidence” in existence, the researchers aim to understand what role physical learning, teaching and living space has on the higher education experience.

The best of these new buildings can have a totally transformative effect for universities… but is there a similarly transformative impact on students? With no research base to tell us so, it’s time to challenge that assumption
– Stephen Wells, AUDE chair 

Before the pandemic, universities spent more than £3.5bn a year on capital developments. An AUDE-UUK survey in July 2020 suggests 65% of universities had paused or cancelled capital development projects, while 54% had stopped maintenance work that was not connected to statutory compliance. Under best-case scenario planning, these universities predicted a total impact on estates strategic spending of £374m.

With teaching shifting to the online sphere – and with HE budgets under pressure from rising costs, pension contributions, an anticipated decline in tuition fee revenues from EU students and edtech investments – “post-Covid future investments will have to deliver even more value,” researchers say.

The project – which will publish interim findings in just over a year – aims to support future estates strategies.

The project will establish a working definition for student outcomes, which will include academic achievement, student retention, graduate employability, health and wellbeing, and inclusive student experience.

The steering panel will be chaired by Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Starr, who serves as pro-vice-chancellor for strategy, planning and partnerships at the University of London and HEDQF Chair. The panel comprises university strategic planning and estates professionals; academics and researchers; architects and contractors; HE teaching, learning and policy experts; behavioural scientists; and students.

Dr Alwani-Starr said: “Whether as a whole sector or as dedicated estates teams we need to work alongside contractors, engineers and architects to develop a deeper understanding of the impact that our decisions can have and to enable the adoption of options that enable the best student outcomes.”

She said the wider range of supporters – including the HE regulator in England – reflected “the understanding that buildings, technologies and services affect students’ education, wellbeing, and future prospects”.

Stephen Wells, AUDE chair and director of estates, facilities and commercial services at the University of Surrey, said: “The latest AUDE data (AUDE Estates Management Report – October 2020) suggests that up to 10% of total university income is spent on capital projects that aim at improving the built environment.

“The best of these new buildings can have a totally transformative effect for universities – enhancing a subject-area specialisation, for instance, supporting the university in attracting new academic expertise, or positioning the university in a fresh way within the international education marketplace. But is there a similarly transformative impact on students?

“With no research base to tell us so, it’s time to challenge that assumption. This research aims at aligning estates and construction professionals with the matching desire from our students for great study environments.”

Read more: UK ARPA ‘a brand in search of a product’, says science committee chair

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