Estates of the nation

April 3, 1998

Universities are hatching ambitious plans involving property disposals, relocations, new buildings and higher usage. Gordon Hood reports

The 1990s have seen some of the most dynamic shifts to university estates since the Robbins era of the 1960s. Growth in student numbers, efficiency gains, a 35 per cent cut in unit funding over the past eight years, together with changes to teaching, learning and research have resulted in a re-appraisal of the facilities.

The Pearce report, Capital Funding and Estate Management in Higher Education, pinpointed surplus space in higher education institutions and said it should be used to mop up projected growth in student numbers.

New universities coming from a background of polytechnic funding were used to implementing aggressive utilisation strategies. They had a need, however, to evaluate whether their space was in the right location and also to take stock of an organic collection of randomly collected property.

For these reasons the new universities have been quick to accept the need for the rationalisation of their estates. Ambitious strategies involving property disposals, relocations, new buildings and high-utilisation strategies are under way in a climate of minimum funding for capital projects. Institutions have been left to their own devices to raise finance for projects from the marketplace.

Traditional universities have had to take stock of their significant property portfolios and examine the impact of changes in teaching, learning and research, as well as updating their facilities to comply with statutory regulations.

Efficiency gains mean better estate performance through more effective utilisation, lower energy consumption and planned maintenance. The need to improve the type, quality and performance of teaching space has never been greater. New capital projects have been selected more carefully than in the past, and they have been deliberately targeted to specific institutional objectives where profile, kudos and income can be guaranteed as a return on investment. New research institutes, postgraduate accommodation, residencies for overseas students and improved student facilities have been the order of the day.

In 1998-99 student numbers are set to rise again by 6,000 full-time equivalent places with another 8,500 still to be allocated. The government has not set aside extra money for capital projects. Institutions will again have to find development funding themselves.

A number of research-orientated universities are enjoying the results of the recent research assessment exercises. Projects with industrial partners are making healthy contributions to their income. Sponsored research projects generally require expensive facilities and in recognition institutions are looking for partners not only to support the programmes but to help fund property developments. As sponsored research continues to grow, university estates will need to be able to respond by providing suitable space for new facilities alongside existing departments.

The need to accommodate new research programmes in addition to refurbishing outdated teaching departments, particularly in science, will exercise the minds of many in the next few years. In addition existing portfolios will need to be revisited, and institutions may need to be prepared to take a more radical view on disposing of estates to make way for new growth. Encouraging flexibility, attracting partners and improving utilisations are back on the agenda as is coping with large-scale mergers such as teacher training institutions with university departments. Further rationalisations may soon follow.

New universities with reprofiled estates, smaller research bases and new teaching facilities will be aggressively targeting the market for students.As the introduction of fees and cancellation of maintenance grants make themselves felt, new institutions should be well placed to retain their home-based students and attract outsiders.

Fresh appraisal of income opportunities will also be required. These may include: new leisure facilities for students and the community, conference facilities for the business market, making available short-term accommodation for overseas institutions, considering the public dimension of areas of research, and articulating the lifelong learning concept into a new estate provision.

Gordon Hood is an associate at RMJM consultants.

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