Universities may soon be required to offer “underused” parts of their estates to Airbnb travellers under plans to raise extra cash for teaching and campus upgrades, Times Higher Education has learned.
According to a leaked memo seen by THE, ministers are said to be “actively exploring” a bold new strategy that would see university estates kept in use around-the-clock in an “imaginative and cost-effective way”.
With undergraduate tuition fees remaining capped at £9,000 a year and little prospect of extra public investment, the Airbnb initiative is now seen as key part of the future funding regime for higher education, potentially raising millions of pounds a year for individual universities, the memo adds.
Business secretary Sajid Javid, who famously has a portrait of Margaret Thatcher on his office wall, is thought to have endorsed the plan as a means to inject a pro-market, entrepreneurial ethos into the heart of academia.
The idea was developed within government after senior Whitehall figures were said to have deemed the review of sector efficiency led by Sir Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, to have been "insufficiently radical".
Under the plans, universities would be forced to sign up to the popular travel app and offer at least 50 per cent of their office space each night to tourists and business travellers.
“These offices are often right in the centre of the world’s coolest travel destinations, but they are practically deserted overnight and at weekends,” said one Whitehall insider.
“It will be easy enough for academics to sling a camp bed and sleeping bag in the corner of the office before they leave work – that’s at least £50 that could be spent on a new photocopier or refurbishing the campus gymnasium,” he added.
Guests on campus would be required to check out by 9am on weekdays to avoid overlapping with tutorials and seminars, with fines imposed if they slept on through class, the proposed guidelines state.
But there are likely to be concerns about proposals to let out so-called “iconic university venues”, such as King’s College Chapel, in Cambridge, and the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
While some lecturers have voiced concerns about the plans as “unworkable”, “intrusive” and “efficiency gone mad”, others in the sector have welcomed the proposals, saying offices are often “underused”.
“Some professors’ offices are huge, so you could easily get a couple of IKEA bunk beds in the corner without too much difficulty,” said Don Believeit, professor of tourism studies at Bulgaria’s Ivor Binhad University, who has advised on the scheme.
“That type of room would be perfect for putting up a stag party – it would be a truly memorable travel experience for them and may liven up departments at the weekend, which, let’s face it, can be rather gloomy and quiet,” he added.
However, some academics have reacted angrily to reports that they may be required to restyle their offices to maximise revenue from Airbnb rentals.
“We’ve been asked by the university to minimise the number of academic books on display on our shelves as these can look a bit scruffy and unappealing to guests,” said one lecturer.