Peter Sandy looks at how fees and loans raise expectations of value-for money housing and services
A lecturer friend complained about a student who not only had his mobile phone switched on during a tutorial but actually left the room to take a call. "When he finally reappeared I ended the tutorial and sent him packing."
My friend, a sociologist, may have to adjust his assumptions about the future relations between teacher and pupil, since students who are paying fees and running up a big personal debt are likely to perceive themselves as consumers of the services he provides. Thatcher's children tend to judge universities against the standards of customer service they have come to expect in other "markets". This increasingly critical attitude will be applied to all facets of their educational experience, including the physical facilities and support services, as many estate directors realise.
Ian Coldwell, director of estates at Imperial College, says: "You can do great teaching and research in poor surroundings, but I see a growing trend towards higher expectations about the quality of facilities and the environment from both students and research sponsors. Student fees will add to the competition that is already there."
Roger King, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, which opened the doors to its new waterside campus at Lincoln last year, believes that campus quality is influencing student choices. Professor King says: "There is no doubt that our new building and especially our student residences, most of which are en-suite, made us more attractive to students," he says. "Applications for Lincoln-based courses were up by 30 per cent last year, compared to a 9 per cent increase in Hull." Noting that parents commented on the quality of Lincoln's student residences, he believes it would be a mistake to assume that because more students are likely to be locally based in future, universities need to pay less attention to providing residences for them. "Even if home is only 30 miles away, they will still spend the week here, so residences are always going to matter," he argues.
While it might have been true in the past that some students chose universities on the basis of the quality of the local beer, today's students are relatively hard-headed. Key factors in choice of a university or college are: the course, the reputation of the establishment, then social life and location - which was judged in terms of how easily they can get home, and whether the institution has a "good feel" about it.
Generating this "feel-good factor" is a concern of those commissioning and designing new buildings. Roland Levinsky, dean of the Institute of Child Health - now part of University College London medical school, provides an object lesson in how to get it right.
Heading a primarily postgraduate research institute, his view is that "the reason for having good facilities is to attract good staff". The success of his efforts to draw leading scientists and their research teams to the institute has been based on a well-conceived development strategy and a commitment to good design.
Dale Jennings, a director of architects ORMS, which provided the strategy and design of the new buildings, and also designed the new building for University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the Federal School of Management in Manchester, which opens later this year, says that both clients worked hard for a good dialogue with the architects and were able to extract the most from the opportunities generated by the design process. "What people will see in the final buildings is a reflection of that commitment from the top," says Mr Jennings. "Institutions which do not work with their designers will not produce buildings that realise their vision and shift perceptions about their institutions.
"A good environment carries the message that we care about our teaching and research as well as our architecture. That doesn't mean that all the buildings have to be perfect. But if the university can say, 'look at how we spent the money last time, look at the qualitative difference from the old buildings' - that will demonstrate that there is a vision driving the place forward."
Greater competition for students, staff and research funding coincides with a growing awareness of the role of design. An added excitement is that while clients are thinking more about the design of the learning environment, ideas about the nature of their organisations and how they will deliver education are also shifting. Management gurus have moved on from administering unpleasant but necessary doses of re-engineering to more beguiling ideas, such as the "frictionless"' organisation. The desire for 'low-friction' academic interchange was fundamental to the design of both the institute and UMIST buildings.
Such a trend towards relaxation of the rules and "domestication" of the workplace offers fertile ground for the development of more adventurous and pleasing physical forms. Mr Jennings says: "When we design a building we look at what makes people comfortable. If you take these little details about how people like to behave, and magnify them in a design, people using a building will just enjoy being there and feel they are in a good environment."
A second level of change is driven by new approaches - one of which is student-centred learning. Norma Reid, deputy vice-chancellor at Plymouth University, believes Plymouth is further down the road than most in implementing broad changes to facilitate student-centred learning.
Professor Reid believes students have been becoming more consumer oriented for some five years, but regards student-centred learning as a more fundamental driver of change. "The point is that facilities and access become more important to students if they're going to act as independent learners, rather than be spoon-fed with knowledge," she says.
Estates, campus services and technical services have all been brought under one roof, to be headed by a new director of learning facilities, a post being advertised. The result is a changed relationship between academic and support staff. "There is a discernible change in the climate in the university and more of a partnership approach, in which support staff are not treated as second-class citizens," says Professor Reid.
A third fascinating dimension is how urban universities articulate their relationship with cities, in a way that gives them a permeable barrier with the urban environment and yet enhances their visibility. This question has been exercising the London School of Economics, that failed to buy County Hall opposite the Palace of Westminster - a move which would have given the LSE much greater visibility than its present hiding place in a cluster of buildings behind Kingsway, Aldwych and The Strand. "Our proposal failed because of some intransigence by the previous government," says David Goldstone, chairman of property developer Regalian and a member of the LSE's court of governors.
Now the LSE is settling down to the job of defining its territory more clearly, perhaps by laying a "carpet" of new street paving, or even by putting a big glass roof over part of its site.
As Mr Goldstone says: "Improving our environment is near the top of our agenda. We are not simply relying on our academic excellence and saying to students: 'we are the LSE, you come and find us'."