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Martin Read and Bradford Keen look at how demographic and technological changes are set to affect how facilities managers operate in the higher education estates sector.

©Andy Brown
©Andy Brown

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Read: Lessons in relevance here 

01 April 2019 | Martin Read & Bradford Keen 

AUDE inspiring

Lucy Black, head of facilities and student accommodation at the University of Plymouth and an IWFM board member, reports from the recent Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE)’s ‘Big Conversation’ and its suggestions for the future of higher education facilities management

‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding.’These words – inscribed along the inner edge of the dome in McEwan Hall at the University of Edinburgh – acted as a useful mantra for the realism/dynamic/enthusiasm (I’m still working on a suitable collective noun) of estates directors at AUDE’s third annual Big Conversation in February.

The recent successes of the HE sector have been significant with estates in the UK spanning more than 22 million square metres, spread across more than 150 institutions of varying scale and complexity. In 2016/17, universities’ income exceeded £33 billion, with associated capital expenditure of more than £3 billion, funded in part by borrowing.

But the challenges facing the sector are complicated and numerous. The UK is in a demographic dip, facing historically low numbers of 18- to 19-year-olds – the traditional undergraduate student cohort. Its future funding is also uncertain, with the government’s Augar review into post-18 education expected to recommend a reduction in students’ tuition fees, directly affecting institutions’ income.

In among the topics discussed was the question of whether the university estate is as good now as it is going to get. While there are challenges, my answer, of course, is no. (If you’re ever in a position where you think this is the best it’s ever going to be, 

it’s probably time to pack up.)

There are plenty of examples of the university estate across the country adapting to constant change. They’re keeping pace with the requirements of the academic mission and the need for learning spaces and workplaces to evolve alongside both teaching and learning methods.

The HE sector is diverse, with varying focuses on research or teaching, varying cultures and appetites for change, and greater or less agility in decision-making and financial models.

Despite these differences, it was helpful to consider the ‘University of 2050’. Are delegates’ current investment strategies correctly prioritised?

Many agree that students will have significantly different expectations of their university and will choose to engage with it in many different ways, such as through online lectures, short-term courses and studying while working.

Students will increasingly demand personalised education and support services, enabled by digitalisation. Each university will reach different conclusions about what ‘good’ looks and feels like and, as with any organisation, the estate’s strategy must link with the university’s strategy to be an enabler for it.

While we may yet struggle to find a collective noun for them, it’s safe to say that, having banded together, estates directors are a little wiser.

Social studies

Tearing down perceived and physical barriers between campus and community is a topic heading up the agenda as universities consider wider interaction with the communities in which they are located. Bradford Keen considers the likely impact of the sector’s drive towards greater social inclusion

Academic institutions are trying to erase their traditional image as ‘fortresses on the hill’ as they seek to welcome greater community engagement.

“There is something about not feeling like there is a barrier, or a ‘them and us’,” says Lucy Black, head of facilities and student accommodation at the University of Plymouth. The era of the ‘civic university’ is at hand.

Opening existing university spaces to the community, for example, making it easier for dog walkers and those with pushchairs to enjoy the grounds and cafés, or providing rooms for local groups to have meetings and encouraging people to attend public lectures and events such as concerts, dances or films – are the ideas in play here.

“We do a lot of work reaching out to primary and secondary schools,” Black explains, “and that’s partly to increase aspirations as there is a fairly low take-up of HE in this area.”

The typical university already provides financial benefits to its local area in terms of employment, from cleaners and security guards to catering and maintenance personnel. But it is through investment in the campus itself that the community can benefit from “hubs of good design and good buildings that create a buzz in an area needing a bit of regeneration”, Black explains.

Daniel Ladbury, director of estates at Sheffield Hallam University, believes the education estate is likely to take on a more expansive local role.

“Universities will be more welcoming to businesses, members of the broader community and general public,” he says. “They will become ‘outward-facing’ and less ‘ivory tower’.”

The likely increased commercial activity and wider ‘civic university’ approach will make the typical university “a real anchor to the city or area it is part of”, predicts Ladbury.

Sheffield Hallam, he says, is looking at how it can use its assets and services to provide support and value to the community, an approach he sees as particularly impactful given the financial struggle many local authorities are waging.

Universities need to create an estate upon which academia and businesses engage and collaborate. These should ideally be aligned with the institutions’ research and innovation, as well as looking at job creation. 

“Universities [could] act as catalysts for new jobs that don't even exist now coming out of some of their research and innovation,” suggests Ladbury.


The university of 2050: Luxury versus flexibility?

Visualising the ‘university of 2050’ is an interesting thought experiment. For Ant Bagshaw, director of management consultancy Nous Group, it is a future likely to involve two very different types of institutions: ‘super luxury’ universities for the elite, and mass-market universities for everyone else.

The former will resemble what universities offer now, Bagshaw says, with “the best possible facilities, residential, intensive, lots of face-to-face contact, great resources, more physical learning spaces – and plenty of innovation in how that is delivered”.

This will breed fierce competition, Bagshaw explains, as individual institutions seek to entice a “small number of higher-value students” to provide the best education, learning spaces and non-academic facilities.

“Those mass-market universities will look a lot more like any other corporate that provides its services online or in locations that they don’t own,” Bagshaw argues. “So, a bit like a high street chain, you might have places that you rent for delivery of activities despite the fulfilment centre being in a warehouse somewhere quite far away.”

The ‘university of 2050’ has a suitably futuristic ring to it, but Bagshaw says it’s a realistic time frame for the change that’s coming. 

While online education is not yet ready to dominate the market – the result of current technological limitations and insufficient policy – Bagshaw says that the speed of technological innovation over the past 30 years suggests that traditional models of education are falling out of favour.

On/off options

Increased online study and a move away from “lumpy” degrees are inevitable factors. Bagshaw explains: “The vast majority of students go through a three-year education and the idea that this is fit for the future just will not hold up.” 

Instead, we’re likely to see education broken down into components of lifelong learning with ‘hop on, hop off’ courses.

It is an approach that will not appeal to all, and many students will still long for the experience and status of attending university. And they will be prepared to pay for it.

“That’s why I think you will see that luxury segment,” says Bagshaw. “And obviously the question is how big is that?”

In 2019, about 50 per cent of all school-leavers will go on to university. 

“I reckon 80 per cent will have a higher education in 2050,” Bagshaw predicts. “But of those, only a quarter will be doing the luxury version and the rest will be pursuing the more online, flexible dip-in dip-out lifelong-learning-type options,” he adds.

Universities in the US offer some useful insight into what may be ahead for the UK, says Bagshaw. With marketing of the university experience key, many have invested large sums into sports facilities such as stadiums or swimming pools.

Bagshaw theorises that a new generation of elite institutions will comprise “luxury accommodation, amazing landscaping and high-end buildings; expensive architecture that will generate a distinctive kinds of space”.

Super luxury and mass-market institutions, says Bagshaw, will operate at two extremes, “with one going down a really expensive pound-per-square-foot route and the other potentially seeing zero investment in capital and being only about renting generic changeable space”.

Bagshaw says that for estates professionals the luxury route is a simpler one to take. Try to get as much money out of your university to spend on luxury accommodation, impressive modern buildings and sport facilities.

For mass-market universities, the challenge for estates professionals will concern flexibility.

“There is a real risk at the moment where not all the universities we have today will end up in that luxury segment and some of those that don’t make it have estates that will be really hard to repurpose for other activities,” Bagshaw explains.

“So, be that in the wrong location or that they’re too highly specialised as facilities – there's only a small number of other businesses that are going to want to buy a library – so there is clearly a land value element to it and, depending on where you are in the country, what you can do with it.”

The universities that don’t make it into the luxury segment and have to transition into the mass-market offering will find it easier to repurpose their estates if they’re in cities, where there will likely be more buyers or renters.

“There is a real challenge for those universities in small towns or rural and semi-rural areas and even some campuses on the edge of towns,” says Bagshaw. “It’s hard to see what they will be used for. Clearly there are science parks and business parks, basic office functions. 

“Frankly, I think some universities could be turned into Centre Parcs-style leisure facilities. That’s not impossible to think of, as some have absolutely incredible and often self-contained infrastructure environments.”

Bagshaw says there is a long history of the education sector partnering with third parties, particularly for accommodation. But more can be done such as seeking external investment for specific activities from grant funding from charities and individuals, as well as opening the estate to conferences and events to bring in revenue.

Repurposing university accommodation

The universities that don’t become super luxury estates might consider repurposing their on-site student accommodation into co-living spaces.

“Let’s assume that, at the moment, 18-year-olds go off to university for the residential experience, meeting people and building relationships and friendships that often last a lifetime,” Bagshaw says. 

“People will still want that, even if they get their education delivered more flexibly.

“I think it’s possible to imagine co-living as something we see people doing for three to five years early on in their career when they’re setting themselves up in a new city and it will be a really flexible living arrangement.”

Bagshaw sees these as the living equivalents of co-working spaces. Some are already under way although they are far from becoming “a cultural norm”.

“These could be really interesting communities, maybe centred around employers or groups of employers,” Bagshaw says. 

Universities have rooms and facilities, “so why aren’t they just full of start-ups or some combination of small businesses or a large anchor employer [with] people living and working in a campus environment?”

Access to these facilities would come through an individual’s employer rather than their education provider.

About 15 to 20 years ago, asking anyone in the C-Suite to give up their personal office space would have been met with scorn and derision. However, that great persuasive ally, profit, soon convinced them otherwise. 

But the problem for the higher education sector is that academics are still working like it’s 2001, with various reasons why professors don’t want to give up their offices: they need quiet space for research and to meet with students one-to-one, as well as bookshelves to showcase their learning – all requirements for doing their jobs properly.

Then there is the matter of prestige – the individual office is often an expectation in an academic’s recruitment package. 

“The role of the academic within the university links their office with their hierarchy, so there is a lot of resistance to giving them up,” says Gavin King, director of Space Invader Design.

“And although spatially inefficient and inflexible, they actually deliver a lot of what academics want. But it’s a cost the university can no longer afford.”

However, the sector is set for change. King, who at this time last year had no universities as clients, now has six. With utilisation being so poor – at around 20-30 per cent – estates teams, he says, are increasingly keen to make their academic workspace more effective.

“They can no longer afford to deliver great education to students when they’re having to spend so much money on their estates,” he adds.

The quality of student experience is the focal point, with much of the shift towards flexibility attributable to meeting this requirement.

Students, acutely aware of paying fees and accumulating debt as they learn, are no longer satisfied, for example, to see their tutor in a 12 metre-square office used once a week while they wait in the corridor. 

University league tables now rank student satisfaction standards alongside the existing staples of teaching quality and academic research.

“Student experience is key and universities are recognising that it needs to be addressed. Estates teams, in particular, are charged with rationalising campuses to improve utilisation,” says King.

A more flexible future

Falling student numbers, a likely cut in tuition fees and the unquantifiable impact of Brexit are conspiring to make university estate professionals’ future-proofing strategies the subject of near-constant review. Bradford Keen looks at the financial pressures facing estates teams

Daniel Ladbury, estates director at Sheffield Hallam University, says students are increasingly eager to understand the campus masterplan and how investments are being made.

“With fees so acutely on the radar at the moment, people are questioning why universities are spending as much as they are on shiny new buildings,” Ladbury explains. “We have to demonstrate that every pound spent on estates and infrastructure is spent for a good reason, not just on a shiny new version of a building that already exists, but something different that puts people at the heart what the building does.”

With challenge comes opportunity, and this is how Ladbury is viewing the economic pressure. “You never want to waste a crisis with these sorts of things as it forces people to think differently.”

This means operating costs become more important to university finance directors, as well as the need to make buildings more resilient to future 

needs – something the sector has struggled with historically.

Estates teams are eager to reap the sort of benefits from flexible and co-working spaces enjoyed by the commercial sector. The problem? Academics have been historically slow to adapt to new approaches of working in the past.

“Estates can be like a Rubik’s cube,” Ladbury explains. “You’ve got to go through a number of sequences to get the right colour on the side, but as soon as you’ve got it someone takes the label off, changes it around and you have to start again. We need to move towards a more ‘Lego-type’ of estate where things can be moved around more quickly.”

That’s why Andrew McConnell, finance director at the University of Huddersfield, says estates teams should develop closer relationships with the academic community to better understand their needs; build a robust business case for expenditure that shows there will be a return on it; and be careful with the money – directors of estates tend to spend big chunks of it – so carefully consider procurement and best use.

The aim should be for students to have more interaction with tutors and professors, with academic staff increasing their levels of collaboration.

Currently, says King, academics tend to “shoehorn everything into their own office”. Instead, he says, sharing spaces as a faculty or department would provide a range of work settings, “from quiet spaces to get-your-head-down research to more socially vibrant spaces where you can collaborate with colleagues, brainstorm ideas and interact with students”.

But in planning these changes, choosing evolution instead of revolution could be problematic, King says. Consider a university that puts four staff into one office as a transition to better space use. “You’ve lost privacy and gained nothing because the spatial efficiencies are insufficient,” he says. “It’s not until you go open-plan, co-working and agile that you get the economy of scale that allows you to have these fantastic workspaces the commercial world is enjoying.”

All six of King’s university clients, he says, have “an appetite to seriously consider how far they can go in the revolution”. He’s hoping to see the realisation of several new pilot projects in September.

Augar’s well?

The Augar Review – chaired by the former non-executive director of the Department of Education, Philip Augar – is seeking to broaden access to high-quality higher education. It has sought advice from academia and business on its four main areas of focus, which are:

1. To help students make better choices for their future by informing them of the opportunities available after turning 18.

2. To improve the value for money of education by making funding across post-18 education more transparent and democratic.

3. To enable easier access to post-18 education for people of all backgrounds. 

4. To provide skills to ensure students are employable in the future economy.

Many expect the headline recommendation to be a reduction in student tuition fees. 

“Augar is probably going to change everybody’s strategic thinking,” says Andrew McConnell, finance director at the University of Huddersfield.

“The days of all-singing, all-dancing, prize-winning buildings are gone,” argues Andrew McConnell. “We need to be more ruthless with our spend per metre.”

Less money (from fees) being available will inevitably mean a keener focus on how what remains is spent. And while investment in higher education estates has consistently improved them over the years, not all universities will be able to ring-fence such capital investment.

“There is a big variation in financial strength between the weakest and the strongest,” McConnell says. “The sector is polarising and you’ll see celebration in some areas but not in others as a consequence of that.”

Achieving flexibility

With flexibility as their aim, some universities may seek to consolidate their estate or divest themselves of assets. But while student numbers may fall, there could be the same number of courses and, accordingly, demand on space. 

Ladbury’s approach at Sheffield Hallam has been commended as cutting-edge. The focus is on an 80/20 per cent divide for generalist/specialist space respectively. This calculation is the result of a roughly six-month-long interview process with stakeholders as to whether a space is specialised, which includes laboratories, libraries and catering areas, for example.

“We are trying to develop that on a standard grid with a standard floor plate so as the world evolves you can just swap things around easily and economically on that standard grid,” he explains. “The specialist space makes it harder to swap around … but when you start exploring it there are not a huge amount of those spaces anyway.”

Part of the mistake with specialised spaces is the initial interpretation of ‘specialised’.  Estates directors need to “make people understand that they are not as locked into those spaces as they think they are”, Ladbury says, which happens when you start discussing actual versus perceived use of space.

An academic may only be in the office 25 per cent of the time because actually she’s giving lectures or in meetings for the rest of the day. Through a “sensitive challenge”, people can be shown that their needs are not as specialised as they thought.