University applications down 4% across the board

Improving the built environment is key to reversing the fall, says Lucy Plumridge, Associate Director and Head of Education at HLM Architects

These are challenging times for universities. As has been widely reported, the number of applications to UK institutions from EU students fell last year by 5%, with many blaming the result of the EU referendum. However, EU students, while important, only make up a small proportion of the overall student body. Of more concern, therefore, is the fact that applications across the board fell by 4%.

The fall in applications means that universities are now having to fight even harder to attract students in what is an increasingly fierce market. Important factors naturally include academic reputation and teaching quality, but the quality of a university’s teaching facilities and, crucially, accommodation is significant too. Tuition fees rose again last year to a new high of £9,250 and students simply won’t put up with shabby halls and lecture theatres when they are paying so much. The environment matters.

Of course, funding for capital projects for many institutions is currently tight and universities may be wary of taking on too much development risk. However, when it comes to larger scale works at least, modular construction might provide a solution to both concerns. Modular is evolving rapidly and can provide both cost saving and certainty, as well more reliable project timetables – as several recent award-winning projects have demonstrated.

‘Simple measures such as improving wayfinding around buildings and campuses can reduce stress and enable students to be more focused.’

Universities might also want to consider the role that well-designed buildings can play in improving student wellbeing. The issue of mental health has risen up the agenda in recent years, with the increase in tuition fees and the resulting financial pressures felt by students a key factor. A Guardian student experience survey, for instance, found that an astonishing nine out of 10 first year students find it difficult to cope with some aspects of university life. 

Similarly, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, published in September, stated that over the last five years there has been a fivefold increase in the proportion of students who disclose a mental health condition to their university. The pressures of academic standards, financial cost and social pressures were all cited as adding to the risk of poor mental health and wellbeing in higher education.  

As a result, universities are being encouraged by the government to make wellbeing a strategic priority. A fundamental part of this is the impact that the built environment has on the human experience, as numerous studies in the commercial property sector have demonstrated conclusively. Simply put, wellbeing needs to be a key part of building design and this can be achieved in numerous ways. 

‘Students simply won’t put up with shabby halls and lecture theatres when they are paying so much. The environment matters.’

For instance, the importance of social spaces is vital. Well-designed – and maintained – social spaces can enable students to develop a sense of belonging and encourage peer group learning. Careful design of the spaces in between rooms can create a calm environment that improves engagement and interaction, while connectivity to external landscapes has been shown to benefit physical health, cognitive performance and psychological wellbeing.

Encouraging physical activity is also critical – but that doesn’t have to mean providing more gyms and sports facilities. Simple measures such as improving wayfinding around buildings and campuses can reduce stress and enable students to be more focused. In addition, a move away from traditional lecture formats to more active learning styles can yield results.  

Indeed, the diversity of space is a significant issue. While some students will feel most comfortable in a traditional library environment, for others the silence can be deafening. Accordingly, providing a wide variety of study spaces is essential to ensuring every student is able to find a space that suits their approach to learning. 

The importance of good design, therefore, isn’t just a matter of attracting students to a university in the first place. Rather, it is a key tool in ensuring that, once enrolled, students are able to make the most of their university experience and thrive. 

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