How the student experience is reshaping the HE sector

SoVibrant creative director, Adam Atkinson, explains how a focus on the student experience is reshaping the UK university sector

Increasingly governed by digital and social media, today, the empowered and informed student decision-maker simply expects more. 

As competition between universities increases, choosing a university is now much more than a decision around educational experience and facilities but a lifestyle choice centred on that all-important student experience.

Working innovatively and collaboratively

Recognising the commercial opportunity, many universities are developing new ways of thinking when it comes to securing their future. Increasingly, they are turning to companies with strategic, transformational and creative skill to work innovatively and collaboratively to produce clear strategy, successful spaces, engaging branding and creative communication content – to ensure theirs stand-out.

SoVibrant is experiencing particular growth in the university sector and is fast earning its reputation as a university specialist providing support across all areas of the university campus. One example is in food retail provision. More and more it is important to ensure the requirements and expectations of the potentially broad cultural demographics on campus are met and, where possible, exceeded. 

Exemplar food retailing at University of Birmingham

At present, SoVibrant is undertaking a number of projects for the University of Birmingham. One completed recently was for Director of Catering, Nic Mander, who commissioned the redesign of the 9,500 sq ft basement food court. He explains: “It’s a key space for the University, and as a research-intensive, world-class Russell Group University, it’s vital that the facilities and services reflect the quality of the students and academia. Historically, universities have not been recognised for food and beverage, our aim was to change this and set a new precedent.

“During a typical day, there are around 1,400 to 1,500 students, staff and visitors on campus passing through the facility. We wanted it to be a place that allowed people to socialise and feel inspired.”

University of Birmingham Food Court

Director of Hospitality and Accommodation Services at the University of Birmingham Stuart Richards added: “The scheme brings the best of the high street onto campus and will help to enable our team to deliver a high standard of service and a modern, varied food offer, in an environment people love.” 

As with food retail spaces, bars and venues must be designed with off-campus competition in mind. Current trends are shifting towards design-led, boutique premises that create go-to destinations and offer a genuine alternative. Creating spaces that offer flexibility to perform alternative functions is also important, especially when creating business cases for investment and exploring design feasibility. 

Hotel-grade student accommodation

Student accommodation too is experiencing a dramatic transition. A previously captive market has been exposed to intense private-sector competition demanding more innovative, higher-quality accommodation with a broader range of facilities and communal social experience.

With luxury student apartments that offer hotel-grade facilities and showpiece features such as on-site cinemas and multi-player gaming rooms, accommodation is now one of the key influences for decisions on university choice. Recently, SoVibrant delivered the design services for a new concept, more akin to luxury boutique apartments at The Edge – a new development of all-inclusive apartments in Leeds for IconInc. Fully let prior to completion, the project was a real commercial success for the client. 

World-class design, campus-wide

University campuses have to integrate a wide variety of interior design and architectural styles, functions and relationships. When considering the relationship between real estate and student experience, an essential factor is to understand that each project is also an opportunity to develop and consider how student experience can be affected, integrated and augmented by well-considered design solutions.

Often student experience is considered at the end of a project or is overlaid on completion. The most successful projects consider this from inception with KPIs that can be measured to validate success or inform further change.

Design, in relation to market trends, delivers natural alignment between a campus and the real-world experience awaiting students. It ensures that university facilities are innovative, relevant and forward-thinking. Most importantly, however, it makes the student experience positive and allows the university sector to continue to up its game.

Find out more about SoVibrant at or to discuss your specific requirements, please contact Adam Atkinson:  Call: 01423 789388, Email:

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