Universities are inexorably linked with the myriad of buildings and locations that make up their estate. Whether it’s the quadrangles of Cambridge externallink or the Brutalist concrete of the environmental sciences centre at the University of East Anglia externallink, the built environment plays an important part in shaping our perception of higher education.

University of CambridgeMore than a third of students say that when considering where to study they reject institutions because of the quality of buildings, facilities and the physical environment according to research by the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) externallink.1

High quality facilities were also ranked as among the ‘most important’ factors according to the 2016 Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2 with Loughborough externallink, the Royal Veterinary College externallinkand the University of Oxford externallinkscoring particularly highly with students who are now expected to shell out up to £9,000 a year on their studies.

It’s surely, then, no surprise to find universities investing big to meet the needs of a new generation of learners. AUDE figures from 2015 3 suggest that £2 billion was spent maintaining and upgrading estates and the UK’s university estate (excluding halls of residence) now occupies almost 21 million m2 of space (up half a million on the year before).

Even the quietest of university libraries may well be finding construction noise a bigger challenge than chatty students as universities continue to build for the future and compete in the present

The organisation suggests that the increased spending is likely to be driven by increased student expectations and the need to provide an outstanding environment to meet these demands. With the pool of available students declining, competition is increasing, and investment in estate seems to be a key way institutions choose to differentiate by providing a ‘better’ student experience.

Ambitious plans: The Waterside Campus at the University of Northampton

One thing’s for sure, would-be students flicking through print and online prospectuses are never too far away from massive redevelopment programmes giving rise to landmark buildings. Just take the current programmes at the University of Birmingham externallink, University of Nottingham externallink, University of Huddersfield externallink or the Waterside Campus at the University of Northampton externallink by way of example. Even the quietest of university libraries may well be finding construction noise a bigger challenge than chatty students as universities continue to build for the future and compete in the present.

The influences on the new

The building boom is undoubtedly having its own impact on the look, feel and purpose of our University campuses and wider environment.

Paul Roberts in University Trends: Contemporary Campus Design (2014) externallink suggests that many institutions are actively seeking out the world-renowned “starchitects” for their projects with a key motivator being the need to grab attention with a “wow-factor”, using architecture as a statement of intent that enhances reputation by way of iconic buildings. While the brightest and best designers have always been attracted to academia, Sir Christopher Wren being a notable example, some modern-day projects are undoubtedly more successful and enduring than others despite the star power.

Where iconic new-builds are not possible (whether financially or legally, in the case of listed structures), there are many examples across the sector of adaptive re-use of existing buildings too. At the University of Huddersfield externallinka series of derelict mills were repurposed as the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre, while the chance to move the Dickson Poon School of Law externallink into the iconic Somerset House, at the heart of London’s major arts and cultural centre, was too good an opportunity for King’s College London externallink to turn down.

With energy costs on the rise and challenging carbon emissions targets, the practical need to drive down costs and develop sustainable buildings is also being brought to bear on university estates. The John Henry Brookes Building at Oxford Brookes University externallink won a number of RIBA Awards, including one for stability, with the building boasting a green roof, solar panels and toilets flushed with harvested rainwater, for example. The annual Green Gown Awards externallinkproviding plenty of other examples of the sector’s success.

Securing efficiencies

The way we work and learn is changing fast – the idea of a standard lecture, at a certain time for a set amount of time is surely past its sell-by-date. Estates directors have to respond to demands for more flexible spaces and break-out areas alongside more traditional learning or library resources. In a market driven by demand, falling student numbers for particular kinds of course have the potential to impact significantly on estate planning.

It stands to reason that universities are increasingly looking to make more efficient and effective use of facilities - an AUDE report, Delivering Value from the University Estate externallink, estimating a £7.2bn saving in the ten years to 2012/ 13 as a result of driving efficiencies.

The report  highlights a range of strategies including enabling the year-round use of facilities, opening up buildings through partnerships with businesses. A prime example of this approach being Britain’s first joint university and public library – The Hive externallink– a partnership between the University of Worcester externallinkand Worcester City Council externallink.  Other strategies documented included remodelling historic buildings for modern uses and striking the right balance between specialist facilities and flexible space. The report also notes the trend towards campus rationalisation (Manchester Metropolitan University externallinkslimming from seven sites to just two) and more convenient locations with many institutions moving to the city centre and many more opening satellite sites in London.

The future

So, where next? In an increasingly competitive market it seems likely that for some institutions mergers may well be on the cards bringing a fresh set of challenges when it comes to combining or repurposing inhereted estates. Innovative thinking on how to build spaces that work for students, workers, academia and nearby or co-located businesses will also influence design for many years to come.

As for the newly-constructed iconic buildings that beam out from prospectuses? It seems like we might expect a few more as it becomes ever more challenging to loosen student purse-strings. Student digs too, have moved on a bit... it seems today's students just won't put up with slums that would make Rigsby proud, but that's one for another feature...