Exploit your property potential

March 30, 2007

The physical environment of an institution is crucial to the learning experience. Paul Watson surveys efforts to adapt facilities to student aspirations and to the 21st century

Universities have been a remarkably successful business model for the past 500 years and have adapted to change with a few short, sharp shocks. An integral part of their success has come from their physical identity. Now change is the order of the day again. The UK higher education student population has risen by more than a third in the past decade, from 1.7 million to 2.3 million. This has put pressure on the estate, and projections anticipate 300,000 more students over five years. We are now in one of the short, sharp shock phases.

Staff numbers and the university estate as a whole have not kept pace. The overall size of the estate is estimated to have grown by less than 10 per cent in the past decade, while full-time staff numbers have fallen slightly. This has lowered staff-to-student ratios and changed teaching and learning practices.

There are also implications for the estate in the pedagogical changes that have affected learning and teaching, such as:

  • The changed nature of tutorials
  • Teaching large classes
  • Reduced contact time
  • Growth of IT and self-directed learning
  • Changed demands on students through "earning and learning"
  • Diversity of subjects and modularisation
  • The growth of further education
  • Role of student residence in learning.

The physical environment has always been an important factor in the learning process, although it is difficult to pin down its precise effect. The Times Good University Guide notes that five of its top ten universities have the highest library and facilities expenditure levels. Research into student attitudes to selecting a university, conducted by the Sheffield Hallam Facilities Management Centre, found that high-quality environments had an effect.

A more telling example comes from the further education sector, which is about a third of the way through a £4.5 billion capital replacement programme. The first projects are coming on stream. There has been a rise in the number of applications of between 50 per cent and 80 per cent, and also evidence of higher learning outcomes and more staff satisfaction from teaching.

There have been major improvements to the quality of the university estate in the past few years. Spending has risen over five years and fewer buildings are classified as being in poor condition or worse. Even so, almost a third of the estate is still regarded as being in this category. And there is a £4 billion maintenance backlog problem of buildings not adequate for purpose. The cost of rectifying these has risen by 41 per cent since 2000. While the proportion of poor-quality buildings has fallen, the cost of improving them has risen.

The pressure on estate budgets also comes from the growth in student numbers, which has led to a push to cut unit costs, principally to release funds for priorities such as pay and equipment.

But this approach assumes the current university estate is suited to the needs

of teaching, learning and research. We also know that space use across the sector is about 20 per cent. Many institutions may be struggling to maintain accommodation that is not only unsuitable, but unneeded.

We are aware of one institution that plans to review all accommodation on its principal campus. The move was prompted by its health and safety liability, assessed at tens of millions of pounds. Management is reluctant to commit funds to replace fire alarms, remove asbestos and renew cladding when the completed environment will still be a compromise between today’s and tomorrow’s needs.

The preference is for a much more radical campus renewal programme, which will require significantly more capital but will result in accommodation better tailored to the institution’s needs.

Against this background, the much discussed concept of the "affordable estate" needs to be better understood. Such facilities should offer high-quality teaching, learning and research environments, contribute to the student experience and be capable of being maintained at an appropriate cost in terms of the institution’s recurrent funding.

But defining "affordable" requires estimates of future revenues and costs and of expenditure allocated to maintaining the estate.

This means having a detailed picture of space needs today and in future, including considerations such as:

  • The growing emphasis on the environment and sustainability
  • The need for flexible and adaptable space
  • Efficient and effective use of space
  • Financial viability.

Getting this right involves understanding factors such as staff and student numbers, contact hours, management practices, estate size and configuration, and growth plans. While the full implications can be difficult to estimate, doing so can offer insight and project benefits to institutions.

History suggests that much of the sector may regard change with healthy suspicion. But there are indications that more radical reviews of the estate are under way and is generating significant long-term rewards.

Paul Watson is a partner of the property advisers GVA Grimley.

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