The Wow Factor

Helen Dorritt looks at how striking and innovative campus buildings can catch the eye of prospective students

Students have become consumers with the introduction, then trebling, of tuition fees.” So opens this year’s report from the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE). The report goes on to show that all around the country, HE institutions are taking investment in buildings seriously. After all, competition for students has never been so high, with last September being the first intake of students where there has been no governmental cap on the number that a university can recruit.

It’s an investment that’s worth making, according to a report reviewing capital expenditure published by HEFCE and Frontier Economics, which claims that “There is clear evidence that capital is associated with significant positive changes in a number of outcomes at HE institutions, including student numbers, numbers of researchers and contract and consultancy research income.” A little investment can reap dividends, but what are universities investing in?

The whole package

“Often cited as a key objective in the development of capital programmes is the need to improve the student experience by improving the environment,” states the AUDE report.
One obvious area of improving the student environment is, of course, through new builds. Swansea University recently unveiled its new Bay Campus, which is home to 5,000 students and 1,000 staff in engineering and management degrees. It features teaching spaces, accommodation and an auditorium plus shops, leisure facilities and a beachfront promenade to create one attractive campus proposition for students.

“We built this for two reasons,” explains Alison Parker, Business Marketing Manager. “We wanted to create and maintain our fabulous student experience – we’ve risen to number eight for the UK for student experience. We also had a huge demand to work with industry, and what industry is saying is that they needed to have research facilities – they outsource their research facilities now through universities. We put amazing equipment in the engineering facilities and have specific research areas that focus on key areas in the world that are common to everyone, such as climate change and sustainability.

“Students particularly like a campus – you bring people along, create facilities all in one go and people don’t feel alone,” she continues. “It’s very important for attracting international students because we’re a global university. We have to compete with the south-east Asian and American universities – students can choose to go anywhere they want now in the world and it’s very important that you offer a safe experience. We have shops, bars, banks, launderettes, sports facilities, a fabulous library and, of course, the beach!”


Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) also recently spent £27m to upgrade facilities for its law, politics, sociology and psychology students and staff. The ‘Heart of the Campus’ comprises informal learning spaces, a cafe, a lecture theatre and a rooftop garden plus specialist spaces for specific courses including a mock courtroom and a Faraday cage. It wears its eco-credentials proudly, too: it’s heated by ground source heat pumps and has solar panels and rainwater harvesting.

When they’re done well, university developments can be recognised for excellence on a national level, as demonstrated by SHU’s win at the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Yorkshire Awards. And, more importantly, they win over students: 95% of students surveyed at SHU said Heart of the Campus “enhanced their experience”, describing it as “innovative, modern, spacious, clean, bright, useful, fresh, stylish and open.”

It’s all in the detail

Student satisfaction is, of course, high on the list of results from capital expenditure. For Bath University, which has a stream of accolades in this area including ‘First for Student Satisfaction’ in the National Student Survey in 2013 and 2014 and ‘Best Campus University in Britain’ by The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2014, the need to keep this up through investment in campus is very strong. In order to retain this position as the primary campus university destination, and recognising the role that student accommodation plays in this, one of its recent projects was to deliver a full TV and video entertainment solution across student accommodation and refectories.

The University worked with network video provider Exterity and channel partner Snelling Business Systems to deploy a large-scale IP video system to enable students to access high-quality, educative and entertaining content from the comfort of their rooms. The channels are delivered to 750 rooms and monitored from a central platform, enabling accommodation managers to keep students up-to-date with the latest news and campus alerts and ensure that access to specific content is allocated to the right person.

‘Students can now choose to go anywhere they want in the world and it’s very important that you offer a safe experience’

Universities are also responding to this shift in students’ requirements by refurbishing the fabric of existing facilities, where a few interior tweaks can make a big difference. One such example is Cranfield University’s Water Sciences facility, an internationally recognised centre for research and education whose interior was redesigned in order to create a multi-functional space that worked for both students and staff. Biophilic design was key for the whole project, as research demonstrates nature-inspired design can have a significant impact on the creativity, productivity and wellbeing of users of a space – perfect for a natural sciences department!

“One of our key objectives when refurbishing the space was to create an area which suited the working styles of all of our staff and students. This included quiet spaces for reflection and independent working, as well as creative spaces for our students to discuss ideas and work collaboratively,” explains Tracy Flynn, Cranfield’s Development Project Manager.

Central to bringing this objective to reality were products from global flooring manufacturer Interface, including carpet tiles that look like the random pattern of leaves on the forest floor and an accent tile that mimicked the tones and variations in grass. “The biophilic-inspired products from Interface really helped to bring that concept to life, along with elements such as natural light and plants,” says Tracy.


What the future holds

Coming soon to this changing UK HE landscape is Coventry University’s Scarborough Campus, which will be opening in September 2016. Coventry is contributing £14m to build a campus that will offer students a range of courses including law, politics, science and engineering. It’s being led and managed by Coventry University’s Estates team and delivered by Willmott Dixon through the national Scape Major Projects Framework. This project is right in the heart of the community, too, as the site is being redeveloped to incorporate not only this new campus but also a University Technology College, a stadium for Scarborough Athletic FC and a leisure centre.

Key criteria for the centrepiece 4,500sqm building was that it be welcoming and flexible, and to put the needs of contemporary university learners at its core. Arranged over three floors, the teaching spaces are located around a generous atrium at the centre of the building. Within this space will be the welcome desk, library, quiet and group study spaces, student meeting rooms, café and open-plan tutorial spaces on a sequence of learning ‘decks’ on the upper floors. There are teaching spaces of varying sizes for groups of up to 50 with a re-configurable space to accommodate larger gatherings. The aim is that all spaces can be flexible to accommodate different teaching and learning styles. Reflecting the specialist course areas there will also be laboratory space for biological and chemical sciences, engineering and IT, plus a moot court for law students. All of these combine to make a very attractive offering for both new students and staff.

Another university taking its development to the next level is Manchester, which has created a 10-year ‘Campus Masterplan’ in order to bring student facilities up to a world-class level. This £1bn investment from 2012–2022 is a combination of new build, refurbishment and conservation. “Our aim is to support Manchester’s ambition to be in the top 25 research universities in the world by 2020 and creating an excellent student experience,” states Lisa McCarthy, Campus Masterplan Communications Manager.


“We also want to lower costs, reduce the University’s carbon footprint and address the issue of ageing stock. A world-class estate is a key enabling strategy for this goal.”

The £350m Manchester Engineering Campus is one of the flagship developments of the masterplan and the largest single capital project ever built by the university. It will bring together the University’s four schools of engineering for the first time in one location, and is due for completion in 2020.

Other developments include a £175m redevelopment of student accommodation at Owen’s Park in Fallowfield, a new Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre and the refurbishment and redevelopment of the Alliance Manchester Business School, while a second phase of the plan from 2018–2020 will include the creation of a biomedical campus and further works to existing buildings around the campus.

This forward-looking attitude of these universities is something that all HE institutions will no doubt be emulating in the coming years in order to be an attractive proposition in an ever-shifting and even more commercial market. As the AUDE report puts it: “The changing demographics [of incoming students] perhaps make it more acute that institutions are seen to have the right environments in order to continue to attract the required student numbers. This in an era where competition for students is likely to intensify as the number of young people reduces and the market opens up.”  



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