The master plan

Helen Dorritt examines what universities need to do to future-proof their estates and continue to attract top talent

‘The last two years have seen a dramatic change,” states Mark Swales, the director of estates and facilities at Sheffield Hallam University. What he’s referring to is the expectations of students regarding the campus they study at. If universities are to recruit the very best students – and, crucially, keep them there for their entire academic career – then estates directors have a lot of work to do. So what are the vital elements for a 21st-century campus masterplan?

First impressions

The initial step is creating a campus that has the ‘wow’ factor for potential students, which means ensuring buildings look as good as they can do, whether this is through new builds or refurbishment of existing buildings. “The quality of the built environment is a critical factor in choice, so the presentation of the estate is very important,” explains Mark. Now they’re paying over £9k a year just to attend, students won’t settle for a campus that feels unwelcoming, out of date and lacks facilities. 

The capital projects being undertaken by so many UK universities show that the importance of first impressions has been taken on board. Sheffield Hallam, for example, has recently completed two massive projects: the £34m new build Charles St development for the Faculty of Development and Society, and the refurbishment of historic Sheffield building the Head Post Office for its art and design students. Manchester University has a specific ‘Campus Masterplan’ that spans 10 years and £1bn of investment to upgrade teaching, accommodation and research facilities. Roehampton is in the middle of a large schedule of estate improvement, including two new halls of residence, a £34m library and a £1m upgrade of existing teaching spaces. 

For Roehampton, its new halls at the main campus of Digby Stuart College are key in making the University look good from the moment students get to its doors. “For many years, when our students and visitors arrived on campus, the first thing they saw was an uninspiring car park,” says Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Starr, Director of Estates and Campus Services. “We really value the collegiate, community feel which the University has created; this space was perfect for development so we’re building a new home for nearly 400 people in the very heart of our grounds, immediately putting students’ lives and the campus experience at the forefront of their time with us.”

Creating such a welcoming community reaps the benefits. According to a survey carried out by YouthSight in 2014, “students who feel themselves to have been inducted into the community when they start rate their early experiences more highly. Universities where excellent early experiences are most prevalent have fewer drop-outs after the first year. Or to put it another way, if students feel welcome on arrival, they’re more likely to stay.”

YouthSight took this analysis further, and correlated its data with the HESA performance indicators of degree outcomes and employment. It found that universities that received ‘excellent’ ratings for the first term turned these into higher degree completion rates. In addition to the numbers, “the open box comments show that many students reporting excellent early experiences also value feelings of community membership established at welcome.” 

The message is clear: if students feel unwelcome, they will vote with their feet.

For Roehampton, its new halls at the main campus of Digby Stuart College are key in making the university look good

The ‘sticky campus’

Once you’ve got students enrolled, the next important thing is to retain them, which is where the concept of the ‘sticky campus’ comes in. A term coined in Australia, this describes a campus where students wish to spend time outside of their formal classes, doing work and meeting up with friends.

There are two parts to creating such a campus: the practical and the social. As outlined in a report written by New Zealand architectural practice Warren and Mahoney, a firm that specialises in designing buildings for the HE sector, “humans are emotional beings. In creating the best student experience, social, lifestyle and academic aspects are all of equal importance. To attract and retain the best students, a campus environment needs to deliver both the social as well as the academic ambitions of the students. Social spaces, while not considered critical historically, have become essential tools to support modern learning and build positive experiences.”

The new builds already mentioned take this into account, as they not only look attractive and are fit for purpose when it comes to formal learning, but they also create a welcoming, social space. “There’s a connectivity between formal and informal learning now,” explains Mark, who keeps the sticky campus concept at the forefront of his planning. Inside Sheffield Hallam’s Charles St development, for example, you’ll find chairs with built-in sockets to charge laptops, tablets and phones that encourage students to stay and work. There are flexible learning spaces for small groups that include items such as screens with USB ports and tablet link ups. 

Wi-Fi is, naturally, everywhere. 

The formal classrooms have also been rethought, so chairs can be configured into any shape required. It’s a perfect melding of space, furniture and technology to create a building that students want to spend time in when, crucially, they don’t have to, and making a space that students have a positive connection with.

This more social campus is also concerned with making buildings to become more outward looking. This in turn can also open up the hitherto ‘ivory towers’ of academia to the public too, which is demonstrated by Roehampton allowing other University students and members of the public to use its library, and the new Coventry University campus at Scarborough being built alongside a community football stadium.

One of Sheffield Hallam’s major projects is the new build Charles St development for the Faculty of Development and Society

Healthy students equal happy students

As well as academic and social benefits, planning an estate for the 21st-century student also means addressing their emotional health and wellbeing. Alongside providing top-notch facilities, students being happy and healthy during their time at university plays a large role in the retention rate, and estate planning is an important part of this, particularly around student accommodation.

Housing providers Unite has really taken the healthy and happy mandate on board. In 2014 it launched Wellbeing, a welfare approach to students that encompasses physical health, mental health, study and achievement, which was created in response to Unite’s annual higher education partner survey and its own observations that accommodation providers can make a significant impact on students’ lives. Wellbeing works closely with university student services to provide support to students who are struggling, which includes referrals to counselling and other specialist services where appropriate. Wellbeing also promotes positive lifestyles and habits, with initiatives involving healthy eating, stress reduction, good study habits and exercise throughout the year. Each of Unite’s buildings has a physical space where students can find information about healthy lifestyles, activities, university and SU campaigns and also where to find help in a crisis. 

Back at Sheffield Hallam, March 2016 sees the launch of its ‘healthier universities’ initiative, in partnership with FE colleges in the city and partner agencies such as the NHS. This will provide holistic support around mental health using social media, and include provision of mental health, group activities and wellness checks. This personalised support will form an important part of SHU’s retention element. “We believe personalised support is very important – for example, we’re one of the few universities who still give students a personal tutor,” says Mark. “This is reflected in our very good retention rate.” 

Creating the masterplan

The role of an estates director is therefore more important than ever, if a university is to succeed in being an attractive option for today’s more savvy, ‘consumer’ students. For Mark, there are three important points to an estates masterplan: creating a sense of place that students can identify with, making sure facilities are of a standard across the campus and developing spaces that students want to learn in outside of formal classes. 

All of these are not without their challenges. Keeping buildings well-maintained is easy to put off, for example, especially when there’s pressure from the financial department to save money, but an estate director needs to stress how important it is. Even if their classes aren’t in a brand new building, it’s vital that students feel that their space is equally well-cared for, otherwise resentment sets in. Being innovative with spaces when there’s no government funding is equally hard, “but if you keep running costs low, then you create the capacity for investment.” The effort put into creative thinking to overcome these challenges does then reap dividends.

The shaping of estates to be in line with student expectations of life outside the lecture theatre is something that will only become more important as tuition fees increase and competition steps up, so it’s crucial that estates directors reflect on the new role that university buildings have to play in recruiting and retaining tomorrow’s students. Because, as Warren and Mahoney put it, “universities are no longer just labs and lecture halls. Students want spaces to socialise in. These areas are an important part of differentiating between individual universities [and] defining the student experience.” 


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