Universities must recognise changing student expectations – Aude

Student consultation is imperative when planning and managing social and informal learning spaces, finds a new Aude report, with study now an increasingly social pursuit

The Association of University Directors of Estates (Aude) has published a comprehensive report on how best to plan and manage social and informal learning spaces (S&ILS).

Produced in partnership with Sodexo, the catering and facilities management service provider, the report aims to guide universities in S&ILS provision at a time when changing student expectations mean that learning is an increasingly social and collaborative activity.

The research adds empirical data to the increasingly common perception that, as long as there is somewhere to sit, with wifi and coffee to hand, any corner of the university estate – even window sills on connecting corridors – can be colonised by students.

“For estates teams these spaces offer new challenges,” said Scott Lloyd, head of space management and design at the University of Warwick, and co-chair of Aude’s space management group. “It is clear that experience within other kinds of environment – retail and commercial, office, schools – is feeding into student expectations, and higher education needs to be able to draw on wider industry expertise in designing our spaces.

When Sodexo commissioned YouthSight to poll students on their S&ILS requirements, 42% of the 1,014 respondents said the thing most important to them was a secure, safe environment (with a notable gender gap breaking down as 47% of females, 35% of males). Course year was also a significant factor, with safety a key requirement for 51% in their first year, 43% of second years, and 33% of third year respondents.

The next most important aspects were quiet space, sufficient seating, individual work spaces, and general cleanliness. Perhaps surprisingly, appropriate access to digital power and infrastructure placed only sixth on the list.

Campus life must be resilient and built around a deep understanding of new consumer expectations – Simon Knight, Sodexo Universities

The Aude report also cites the 2021 National Student Survey of around half a million final year students, which showed a marked decline in satisfaction with the university experience. For example, while 87% of students said their learning was well supported by IT facilities in 2016, only 71% felt the same in 2021.

There was a similar fall in contentedness with library facilities, course-specific resources, the opportunity to work with peers, and feeling part of a university community.

It should be noted that, while all categories had dropped by a percentage point or two prior to the pandemic, the decline in satisfaction levels between 2020 and 2021 is by far the most marked across the board.

“The work Aude is doing in focusing on different elements of space management all links back to the idea of overall estate efficiency,” said Jane White, Aude executive director. “What do we measure? And what does that tell us about how to manage our estate?

“S&ILS as a category has an upfront problem in our inconsistency around how we even classify these spaces – if we don’t know what they are how can we consistently compare and learn? This survey report is a great place to start a new focus on an increasingly important type of university space, with excellent input from the student perspective to steer us.”

In other news: Universities need to take action over costs and climate – Domestic Student Survey

To that end, the report makes seven recommendations:

  • Flexibility and future proofing needs to be considered in the S&ILS typology, with student consultation helping ensure that design spaces are inclusive
  • Collaboration between departments and faculties should enable S&ILS that is managed and operated in an optimised manner
  • When creating or redesigning S&ILS, Aude members would benefit from knowing the latest design trends and efficient use of assets to have been successfully implemented in the corporate world
  • Defining a clear operational strategy, including the risk management of having to quickly reconfigure or close S&ILS in the event of public health emergencies
  • Consulting students on their needs and experiences
  • Projects should factor in sustainability, offering firm environmental performance data in design and materials
  • Measurements of S&ILS utilisation will offer insight into how useful the space is in practice, informing operational requirements

“Campus life must be resilient and built around a deep understanding of new consumer expectations,” said Simon Knight, MD, Sodexo Universities.

“The seven recommendations within the report provide guidance for Aude members to improve S&ILS as part of their university’s estate strategies and operational plans. A flexible, asset-driven model brings a new focus on the student experience and supports learning outcomes.”

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