Many buildings 'at serious risk of major failure'. Jessica Shepherd reports.
Almost a third of university buildings in England are unfit for use or are in need of repair, a report for the Government has revealed.
In Scotland the situation is worse, with 40 per cent of university buildings at "serious risk of major failure or breakdown" or in "major need of replacement".
The report - commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Trade and Industry and the funding councils - warns that universities need £5 billion to update equipment and crumbling buildings.
If that money is not provided, "the reputation of UK higher education will be at risk", advise its authors from JM Consulting.
The consultants scrutinised the estates of 24 UK universities between March and June this year for the report Future Needs for Capital Funding in Higher Education . They included some of the most long-established, such as King's College London - England's fourth-oldest university - and some of the newest, such as Worcester University, which gained the title only last year.
They discovered that although the condition of buildings had improved since their last report five years ago, progress had been "slow and slight".
Some of the most esteemed research-intensive universities in the UK, and in particular Scotland, had the worst buildings.
The consultants found universities with "unaffordable and over-ambitious estates strategies" and a "lack of central management control over capital spend".
They said universities had prioritised buildings used for research and often neglected those used for teaching and learning such as classrooms and libraries. The research assessment exercise was in part to blame, they said.
In one case, a university had repaired one floor of a building but not another. The consultants said this did not make financial sense.
At several universities noise pollution, ageing lifts and boilers, dust, old cabling and lack of insulation rendered buildings unfit for use or in major need of repair.
Jim Port, managing director of JM Consulting and the report's author, said:
"Overall, things have improved, but it is still very shocking. There is a serious deficit and if we want UK universities to be near the top in the world, this needs to be addressed urgently. Some universities need to raise external funds, merge or collaborate with other universities.
They cannot support the buildings they have themselves."
Peter Kerr, chair of the Association of University Directors of Estates and director of estates at Heriot-Watt University, said: "Top-up fees might add to the ability of institutions in England to invest and to the possibility of greater disparity between England and Scotland."
A Universities UK spokesman said that the maintenance of older buildings was a "constant challenge". "We have pushed in previous spending reviews for better and more stable investment in teaching infrastructure to address this historic backlog."