United estates

Steve Wright examines how today’s university estates managers are balancing budgets against ever-growing student requirements

A university estate manager, and his or her team, face a unique challenge that goes beyond the simple development, management and maintenance of their campus. Tuition fees and other factors mean that today’s students have a more complex set of aspirations and demands than ever before, and forward-thinking estates managers must ensure that their campus is able to respond to those demands – social, educational, pastoral – for this and subsequent generations. 

So, how are the best estates managers tackling this subtle and substantial task? And which of these many areas of student demand – more learning spaces, more social spaces, top-end accommodation, a sustainable campus – are at the very top of their to-do list? 

One answer came through clearly at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University: “The most recent student surveys for our Edinburgh Campus confirmed that students wanted additional teaching and learning spaces,” reveals Graeme Currie, senior project manager at Heriot-Watt’s estates team. “The University’s own space study project also identified a lack of learning and teaching space for the student population.”

Informed by these findings, Heriot-Watt developed a five-year capital investment plan, prioritising a variety of new and refurbished learning and teaching facilities. A number of projects are now in development, ranging from formal learning and teaching spaces to more informal areas – such as the University’s Learning Commons, a flexible space with a variety of learning spaces and a new catering offer.


High-quality accommodation and sports facilities are also, Graeme confirms, near the top of students’ agenda. To that end, Heriot-Watt recently completed Phase 2 of a new residences roll-out, consisting of 450 new beds located on the Edinburgh campus – as well as the construction of ORIAM, Scotland’s Sports Performance Centre. The right to host this national, £33m facility, which is available for community, student and elite-athlete use, was won in competition with a number of other bidders.

Does Graeme see his role as, essentially, balancing budget constraints with the need to provide the most attractive offer to students – or are additional challenges involved? “A number of challenges must be balanced while keeping the student experience at the forefront of everything that we do. The key challenges are identifying investment priorities amongst competing requirements, taking advantage of the limited windows of opportunity for construction work – and achieving the right balance between maintenance of existing facilities, and capital expenditure on new and refurbished facilities.”

Consultation and planning is, therefore, essential. “Engaging with students and staff across all facilities projects is crucial. Attracting increasing numbers of students and world-class researchers through the provision of high-quality facilities like ORIAM and the Learning Commons is an enormously gratifying part of the role.”

Further south, Bangor University’s estates team enjoys a similarly close relationship with its student body. “Our estates strategy has the students’ experience at its heart, and we have provided more learning spaces and the new St Mary’s residential village in response to demand,” explains Derwyn Owen, Deputy Director, Property and Campus Services. “St Mary’s successfully mixes accommodation with plenty of social spaces – bars, lounges, cafes, sports facilities. Elsewhere, our recently refurbished Canolfan Brailsford sports centre offers students the best sport and exercise facilities, and supports many student sport clubs and societies.”

Sustainability is a key factor at Bangor, and the University has become the first organisation in Wales to achieve Level 5 of the revised Green Dragon Standard for Environmental Management, as well as placing 16th of 516 in a league table of the world’s greenest campuses. “We aim to provide an appealing campus which is both welcoming and safe,” Derwyn concludes. “When considering the student experience, we also focus on the ‘soft’ side of our services, by providing a secure and responsive service to our students. 

We also focus on the outdoor environment, using landscaping to provide an appealing social environment. This also fits with our sustainable policies, which are high on both our own and our students’ agenda.

“Our main challenge is to maintain a balance – both between our budget and our ambitions for the student experience, and between the provision of excellent teaching spaces and safe, comfortable and inviting accommodation, sport and leisure facilities.”

Along the coast, Aberystwyth University has been rolling out a £100m investment programme since 2013, aimed at enhancing its residential and teaching facilities. Learning spaces have also been upgraded to provide flexible learning environments, which engage students and harness the latest multimedia technology for teaching.

“One of our biggest projects in recent years has been the building of Fferm Penglais, which now provides some of the best student accommodation in the UK,” Director of Campus Services James Wallace enthuses. “All rooms are en suite and finished to a high standard – because that’s what many of today’s students want. It’s also what their parents are looking for and often, they’re the ones picking up the tab.” In November 2016, Fferm Penglais became the first campus accommodation in Wales to be awarded a five-star rating by Visit Wales.

“We factored in traffic-free design, oversized windows for maximum daylight, low-density housing with an emphasis on landscaping and green spaces, and access to an adjacent nature park and forest, plus a 10-minute walk from the Ceredigion coastal path,” James explains. “We actively encourage students to use bicycles to get around and so we factored in a number of secure indoor cycle stores as well as a bike-wash facility. We also created spacious and highly specified dining and lounge areas in each flat, designed to maximise social experience because our students’ health and wellbeing are important to us.” 

Aberystwyth’s relatively remote and rural location, on the Cardigan Bay coastline, means that an unusually high percentage – some 98% – of its students live away from home. “As a result, accommodation is perhaps a more vital element of our offering than it is for other higher education institutions,” James explains. “We describe ourselves as a ‘residential experience university’, offering much more than simply a room that students can call their own. Expectations of campus life have changed, and our provision has changed in response.”

At Liverpool Hope University, which came first in the North West in the National Student Survey’s overall student satisfaction category, Professor Ian Vandewalle, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Operations) likewise believes that students want “to be able to recognise spaces as their own.”

“Our EDEN building breakout areas are a good example of this. Their swirl-shaped design, combined with comfortable sofas and a table, suggest a defined space for group study, discussions or simply just to catch up with friends. Classrooms back on to these areas, allowing for the differentiation of the space, but still incorporating flow. 

“We wanted to create spaces where our students can stay and relax, but still be near the resources that they need. This combination of definition and fluidity of space is even more important to us as a campus university, where many students will study and live on the same site.”

Making sports facilities available to the wider public is working well in Edinburgh – but Liverpool Hope has taken a different tack. Its new £14.5m Health and Sports Science development includes the £5.5m Hope Park Sports Complex, complete with six-court sports hall, squash courts, gym and fitness rooms, strength and conditioning suites and a new café. “All of our students get free access for a £25 yearly registration fee,” Ian explains. “Our previous sports facilities were open to the public as well as students. This time, we made a conscious decision that the sports facilities would be for our students and staff only. Our students pay a significant amount of money to come here, so it seems only right that they have full, unimpeded access to sports facilities.”

On the role’s recent challenges, Ian reflects: “The increase in fees, the lower birth rate and the removal of the cap on student numbers has changed the landscape for all universities when it comes to accommodation and building planning. We are all now much more susceptible to market forces. 

“Five years ago, universities could predict how many students to expect for the following year, and could plan accordingly. Universities now have less knowledge of the student numbers. Most government-funded major developments, public works and maintenance programmes set in motion by previous governments have since been dropped, adding another level of consideration to any new builds.  

“All of this presents us with more of a challenge when it comes to planning. We have to ensure that we have enough accommodation and facilities to meet demand, while also striving to get maximum use out of our buildings. The knock-on effect of one build on the rest of the campus is also always a consideration. Moreover, as a campus university in a suburban area just outside the city centre, we are mindful of our footprint – and we do not want to build upwards, which others have done. We value our green spaces.”  

Increased fees – and a subsequent increase in students choosing to live at home – presents yet another challenge. “We have a duty to ensure that non-residential students still have access to study and relaxation space, and that we get the proportions correct to suit both our live-in and live-out students. The latter are just as much a part of the university community as those students living in, and it is important that they know this.

“Our overarching philosophy is that we know our students by name and not number. This feeds into everything that we do, including our campus design. Pleasant spaces to study, think and live have a big impact on the overall student experience. For us, estates planning is not just about new buildings. It is about how those buildings can help the university community to thrive.”