HE must not lose sight of service in facilities arms race

By Stewart Ross, Head of Commercial Services, University of Leeds

The university sector is investing heavily in its built environment; this must come with careful consideration of impact on service delivery during the works, as well as hand-in-hand planning for future service delivery once the builders finish their job.

Regular readers of University Business will know only too well that the volume and diversity of capital projects being delivered on our campuses is huge. According to the latest 2014 HE Estates Statistics report, the sector continues to invest large sums into the built environment. Once again investment is on the up, at around £2bn, which is £170m (9%) higher than it was in 2011/12.

The drive to enhance the built environment has been to support institutional market position in recruitment, but it is also critical to delivering improvements in the student experience and in research performance. 

In some quarters this surge in facility spend has been compared to the ‘facilities arms race’ seen across the pond; where according to the New York Times 92 universities reported spending over $1.7bn on capital projects for recreation alone in 2013*, seeing the development of impressive hot tubs, wave pools and recreational facilities. The University of Missouri open day tour stops by the indoor beach clubs, palm trees, lazy river, waterfall and grotto modelled after the Playboy Mansions!

I’m pleased to observe the UK hasn’t quite got to this point yet but one only has to look at the investments being made across the UK, with the excellent projects at Birmingham or Nottingham to see that sport, for example, is also rightly in the minds of UK Vice-Chancellors as an area to make a difference to its facility offer.

So this can only be good for the sector? Well yes, in the longer term there is no doubt that the investment in the built environment will make an important contribution to performance in teaching and research.  

However, we should also remember that the built environment is not easy or quick to change – it takes time, it’s disruptive and can require significant sacrifices for current students and staff. In the short term the impact of construction must be managed and if not successfully done can be detrimental to the ultimate aims of recruitment, NSS results or research goals.

In a period when campus estates are being dug up, refurbished, reorganised and rehoused, those of us involved in delivering campus services are tasked with ensuring it is business as usual. We must, and do, work closely with directors of estates to consider, communicate and mitigate the impact of work on our campus users.

In addition to managing the immediate impact of change, it is critically important we don’t lose sight that in a ‘facilities arms race’ the changes to our campus buildings must go hand in hand with two things:

✥ A focus on how our students and staff use the space between those buildings, specifically the creation of valuable amenity and service space, a public realm which can be used innovatively and is not simply a transition from one building to another;

✥ And careful planning by campus services providers to ensure that the quality of facilities management and service provision can match the wonderful architecture and built spaces being provided.

Adapting and innovating service provision must be as important and go hand in hand with renewing and creating our 21st-century university campuses.


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