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23 October 2019
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Nick Martindale speaks to facilities and estates professionals about dwindling students numbers at university, with estates teams dealing with the consequences. 

© Sam Falconer

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Read: Education estates here 

01 April 2019 | Nick Martindale 

Universities need to do more to attract students amid dwindling numbers, uncertain future funding and a shift towards online learning – with estates teams involved in dealing with the consequences. Nick Martindale speaks to facilities and estates professionals about adapting to deliver on these demands

On the face of it, the UK’s university sector is in fairly robust health. It spends around £3 billion a year in capital expenditure and income in the 2016-17 academic year exceeded £33.4 billion, according to the latest Higher Education Estates Management Report for 2018, produced by the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE). (See figures, p.25.) 

However, the sector faces a number of challenges, each with implications for estates. Overall student numbers are falling – and are likely to continue to do so for more years yet – while the number of people living at home and travelling into university is increasing. Potential future changes to tuition fees or the use of virtual technology only serve to add to the uncertainty faced by directors of estates and their teams.

Universities need to compete to attract students, and the campus or facilities play a vital role in enabling them to do that. According to Sodexo’s 2017 global University Lifestyle Survey, having an attractive campus is seen as the most important ‘environmental’ factor when choosing a university, chosen by 37 per cent of students. 

Investing in facilities, then, can be advantageous from both practical and reputational perspectives, says Keith Lilley, director of infrastructure, estates, facilities management and IT at the University of Sheffield and AUDE chair. 

“Once a student has looked at the options available and decided what they want to study, other factors will come into the final decision-making and a great campus with fantastic facilities could be the thing that confirms the final selection of university,” Lilley explains. This can then be used to breed further confidence in the university, he adds, giving the example of his own university, which saw a significant rise in engineering applications when it started building 19 specialist engineering laboratories in its new Diamond facility. 

Planning for uncertainty

The changing landscape for UK universities means that estates and facilities professionals are having to adapt their skill sets to new demands.  

Stay one step ahead

“The key challenge for directors of estates is to be one step ahead, understanding and contributing to the strategic priorities of their institution and providing the right physical environment to achieve those priorities. That often means planning several years ahead, so being able to scope out the potential future landscape and respond to what’s on the horizon is an essential skill.”

Keith Lilley, director of infrastructure, estates, facilities management and IT at the University of Sheffield and chair of AUDE 

Cope with change

“They need to have a five or 10-year plan that is capable of change and flex and I would think most director of estates would have that. But they need to be strategic visionaries, and able to see what is coming down the line, to take the advice from specialists and to make difficult decisions around what they spend their money on.”

David Stevens, vice-chair of CIBSE FM Group, and a member of AUDE

Become innovators with a digital focus

“Relevant skills will focus around digital and the customer experience. Being able to act on customer insights and to forecast demand will be key skills moving forward. With a generation of students coming into the workforce that have vastly different expectations of work, directors of estates will need to think more about what makes their university an attractive place to work.

“A key skill will be about collaborating with other functions like HR to ensure that the best talent can be attracted.”

Tom Laskey, sales and marketing director, schools and universities, at Sodexo

Spending boost on accommodation

Accommodation is one area that has seen a huge amount of investment in recent years, with halls of residences almost unrecognisable from the conditions of yesteryear. David Stevens, vice-chair of CIBSE FM Group, and a member of AUDE, points to a trend for universities to build new campuses combining lecture theatres and public spaces with residential tower blocks, which can then be used outside of university terms to generate additional income. 

“It might be used as hotel space, so it’s looking at sweating the asset,” Stevens says. The University of Warwick is one example of this, he adds, combining halls of residence with conferencing facilities on campus that can be used to host events or residential courses over the summer.

One current trend is to make use of third-party providers to build and operate accommodation. 

But this can cause issues with a loss of control, according to Nick Fox, an FM consultant with experience of working in the university sector. “There’s a risk you can lose control over that student experience,” he says. “That’s a challenge, because it’s a commercially driven machine but, if it’s got the university name associated with it, then any negative impact will be on the university rather than the housing provider.”

While there is pressure on universities to improve the quality of accommodation, it is not always as simple as pulling down buildings and starting from scratch.

“You can build new facilities but universities, perhaps more than any other sector, have a very strong sustainable and green agenda, and students are very concerned with carbon and embedded carbon, and these are concerns with existing buildings,” Stevens explains. “Now it’s always about deconstructing a building, so what can be reused, rather than just knocking it down.”

Changing learning environment

The learning environment is also changing, both in the requirements for lecture theatres and in how the teaching itself is delivered. Stevens points out the University of Kent now features a mock trading room in its business school in a bid to stand out – something that previously wouldn’t have been considered.  

“They also have a collaborative lecture space based on L-shaped desks,” Stevens says. “That’s based on a Loughborough model, where you can interact with the front of the room where the lecturer is, but you can also have people sitting side-on at an L-shaped desk, so they can immediately break off into collaboration work. That’s a new style of lecture room.” 

Outside lecture theatres, there’s a trend to make more out of areas where large numbers of people can congregate, including using these spaces for people to work or collaborate. And these are increasingly centrally managed rather than being the responsibility of one department. 

Inside the lecture theatres, power remains an issue, says Drew Hardie, head of space management at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Wi-Fi has got so much better but you still need a cable to plug in a laptop,” he says. “The whole battle is to get somewhere that’s flexible but if you put power in, that’s a fixed thing, and in-floor boxes are only good for a certain range of scenarios.


“Students like to have multiple devices, which they power up – although batteries are getting a bit better so they can last through some lectures without the need for power.”

Virtual lectures

Virtual lectures could also have an impact in the future, although current indications are that these are being used in addition to students attending in person rather than as a viable replacement or alternative, says Hardie. 

But this could change in the future, suggests Tom Laskey, sales and marketing director, schools and universities, at Sodexo. “The obvious consideration, then, would be a reduction in traditional lecture space and perhaps more flexible or condensed timetabling that would reduce the overall footprint of the university and improve space utilisation,” he says. 

“Another important consideration is that with fewer students on campus, or for shorter periods of time, the universities could lose the community vibe and collaborative learning appeal. This could reduce the need for service provision from catering through to accommodation over time,” Laskey adds.

Universities are also having to adapt to new methods of learning, with a greater emphasis on collaboration, in much the same way as the corporate environment has over the past two decades. “Over the last decade, universities have invested huge amounts in buildings and infrastructure, but have not always given much consideration to shared communal spaces,” says Laskey. 

“These are vitally important as the lines between learning, dining and socialising become increasingly blurred, and dining becomes less formal and time-specific. Students expect these communal spaces to be supported by dining options that meet their needs beyond just traditional mealtimes and seek them to be open later in the day,” he adds.

A culture of claim

Secondary schools require FMs with adapting skill sets and a keen focus on due diligence, says Alan Gilbert, facilities manager at Petchey Academy

Why do you enjoy / did you choose to be an FM in this sector?

I have always been a good communicator and this is a vital ingredient to support the growth and learning of young students. The sector with budget restraints challenges me to deliver the service and quality of a busy school environment. I do enjoy and gain satisfaction that my teams and I are performing to create a vibrant and safe place to study and for staff to work.

How have the skills required for the job changed in the past three to five years, or even 10 years?

The skill set has changed with RICS and BIFM, now IWFM, leading on facilities courses and the demands and changes imposed by Europe and new legislations and acts that impact on delivery of services. 

It’s a culture of claim, so due diligence is much more at the forefront of buildings with safety of the workforce and the upkeep of all systems such as fire and mechanical and electrical plant.

What do you foresee as the most important areas in which to upskill for the future?

I see a push on the sustainability of waste products and emissions. The need to reduce paper and plastics and I see a push on staff well-being and retention, with benefits and other incentives to look at staff and to keep the retention figures up. This could be via vouchers, gym membership, life and medical care, etc. 

I also think that more health and safety qualifications will be important to create a safe culture within buildings.

The foreign market 

Another influence is the growing number of overseas students that are becoming increasingly important to universities as the number of UK students falls. 

“Foreign students often want something quite different in terms of their teaching facilities,” says Fox. “They want the snazzy, Google-style teaching environments, with big open spaces rather than cellular teaching rooms, and a lot of individual pods and generic seating, which would create more of a learning environment rather than the standard desk and chair.”

Students are also tending to commute to university, which Hardie says means they’re on site less frequently but for longer periods at a time. They can’t go home to make food or drop of their belongings so they will need provisions such as lockers or an area to prepare their meals without having to spend a lot of money. 

There are also implications for security services here, Hardie adds, as people could have to stay on campus much later than those who live locally.  

For directors of estates, the two most important considerations in any upgrade are to offer flexibility and choice, says Lilley. “We need to create an environment which works in a number of different ways and can be tailored to a variety of needs,” he says. “It’s not just about the physical space on offer – it’s also about how that space is managed, the opening hours, accessibility, and providing options for different needs and styles of learning.”    

Rewarding work

Malcolm McGowan, head of facilities 

at the University of Salford

Why do you enjoy / did you choose to work in the HE sector? 

It’s very rewarding and gives great satisfaction to support the education and well-being of students who are the workforce of the future, as well as enabling research that may benefit society as a whole.

Universities are stimulating environments, full of new ideas and intelligent debate. They’re constantly evolving, not only under the influence of government policies, but also global relations, changes in funding strategies and new ideas and technologies.

How have the skills required for the job changed in the past 3-5 years, or even 10 years? 

I feel this can be best answered as a series of statements of areas of development, which are/have been focused on and will continue to evolve.

1. Greater emphasis on financial awareness and accountability;

2. Space utilisation to maximise the available teaching environment to meet ever-stretching educational needs;

3. Technology used for greater efficiencies in all areas of operations;

4. Resource planning with staffing geared to meet the demands of all areas of activity in the university; and

5. Future proofing buildings through design and build of new buildings, and adapting existing buildings to maximise longevity of productive use.


What do you foresee as the most important areas in which to upskill for the future?

Technological and social forces are transforming how work gets done, who does it, and even what work looks like. 

Technology can improve productivity, but there will be significant turbulence as organisations grapple with complex and unpredictable change. 

To that end, flexibility and adaptability of work processes need to be developed by engaging with staff and training them to meet the future needs of the HE sector and the digital educational environment.