The changing face of the university campus

Hannah Vickers talks to the specialist HE contractors who, like their university customers, have had to keep up with changing student trends

Universities are almost unrecognisable from what they were a decade ago. Students have changed; the way they study has changed, the job market they enter on graduation has changed, and – most importantly – the power dynamic has shifted. The student is now also the customer who demands value for money. Institutions have to make sure their facilities accommodate the new generation of student.

Campus buildings are increasingly multi-purpose, and lecture halls, libraries and student halls have been replaced with facilities that integrate work, rest and play in one building. The luxury available on campus is at levels students just a few years ago would have been astounded by. Now, it’s becoming the norm, with universities offering more and more deluxe options, in an ever-more demanding market in which students are customers as well as undergraduates – and informed customers. 

As competition rises – and the lift of the tuition cap means that universities are now charging a lot more – universities need to be able to offer more to tempt prospective students. Specialist contractors now have the challenge of designing and building campus buildings to suit this new breed of student: the student who is also a customer, who expects quality facilities to support their academic and non-academic needs. 

Multi-purpose buildings: The new campus for the new student

A decade or so ago, it was simple. There were the places you went to learn: lecture theatres, classrooms, computer labs, the library and the places you went to have fun: namely, the Student Union bars and club. And then, at the end of the day, it was back home to eat, sleep and recharge, ready for the next day.

OK, so the progression from work to play to rest was never quite that linear, but there was a divide between them that is no longer there. In many institutions, that separation between academic and non-academic campus buildings no longer exists. Campus buildings are increasingly multi-purpose, offering a range of facilities under one roof.

“Today’s students learn and interact with each other differently to the last generation. Just as many study whilst on social media, the ability to engage academically and socially within the same or adjacent space is second nature,” says Aaron Taylor, Principal and Education Sector Lead at Stantec.

“The way in which people study has changed a lot,” agrees Oliver Milton, Partner at Hawkins Brown. “People are far more capable of working quite effectively in quite an informal setting.” 

Because of this, demand has risen for ‘hub buildings’ which are able to offer a mix of academic and non-academic functions: IT suites and informal study spaces – with areas for silent, quiet and social study – and dining and retail facilities.

This is partly as a result of the increasing commercialisation of higher education, says Richard James, HEFE Sector Manager for Willmott Dixon. Universities now need to be more efficient in their management of the campus, and hub buildings are a cost-effective way of providing all the services students need under one roof.

An example of this is the University of Warwick’s new Oculus building, being built by Willmott Dixon, which can be used by any of the faculties to maximise the space. 

“The Sibson building at the University of Kent brings two schools under one roof, with central shared teaching and social spaces not only improving utilisation, but also creating interactions between staff and students from the complementary schools,” he adds.

The change in provision is also a reflection of students’ changing attitudes towards learning. Today’s student is simply a different beast.

“There is no typical 9–5 student day anymore, and as with working practices, the models of learning are changing. Universities need to create spaces that support students with social and pastoral facilities,” says Aaron.

Institutions want flexible learning spaces that can be adapted to the need of the group; rooms that can expand and contract as required and furniture that’s easily moved so that the room can transform effortlessly to fit a seminar, workshop, presentation…

“We have seen a significant amount of campus development across the country – and internationally – as each institution strives to improve their student experience. In addition to expenditure on dedicated faculties, we have seen campuses being designed to support the 24-hour student lifestyles away from their learning spaces – student life, sports, entertainment,” says Aaron.

“The importance of creating buildings that can adapt and change – often several times during their lifetimes – is a given, and designers must look at ways of accommodating this in a cost-effective way that minimises disruption.

“Equally, as greater inter-faculty collaboration becomes the norm, the creation of multi-functional space – formal or informal – is important, which is why more administrative building spaces are now being regularly used for learning,” he adds.

Technology plays a big part in the move away from the traditional learning en masse in lecture halls. The ‘flipped classroom’ allows students to learn in their own way. They can access course materials – including audio and video lectures – from anywhere, and contact time can be used more effectively for teaching in smaller groups and workshops.

“University campuses are continuing to evolve, as they look to new ways of learning and teaching that embrace the latest technologies and personalities of the millennial generation,” says Aaron.

“Students have got much higher expectations than when I was at university,” says Oliver. He says that this uptick in expectations is partly because students now come from schools that have better facilities and partly because today’s student is just better informed about the different options available, and about the quality of facilities at their different choices. 

The advent of social media, and the leaps that technology has made over the last few years – 360-degree video tours and live open days mean that prospective students can virtually visit a university without even leaving the house – mean that students today are much better informed than they used to be, too.  

The student calls the shots

The new generation of students can afford to demand more. There’s been a definite shift of the power dynamic to the student over the past few years. The HEFCE becoming a part of the Office for Students, which effectively incorporates the main funding body into a student-focused structure, only serves to highlight this change in the power dynamic.

“Since the introduction of £9,000 a year fees, students are widely regarded as customers of the universities, whereas previously they were probably perceived to have been fortunate to have been receiving a service,” explains Richard. 

He says that universities now have to be more attentive to the needs of students, and invest more heavily into the non-academic services and facilities they provide. By providing the hubs with integrated learning and social spaces, institutions become more attractive to prospective students and encourage students to spend more of their non-taught time on campus. 

“The standard of student accommodation has increased across the university estates in recent years,” agrees Aaron. “The focus should be on the delivery of well-designed accommodation to suit various price points, but all providing a safe and comfortable environment in which students can flourish.” 

It’s not uncommon to find campuses offering a huge variety of dining and retail options, including banks, travel services, coffee shops and sushi bars. It’s a very different campus to when I was at university, when we had a bar, cafe and student shop on campus, and not much else. 

‘Campus buildings are increasingly multi-purpose, and lecture halls, libraries and student halls have been replaced with facilities that integrate work, rest and play in one buildin

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