How university estates can keep up with changing trends

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  • How university estates can keep up with changing trends
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Stephen Scott


Stephen Scott


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Does the recent drop in applications for full-time university courses foretell a trend towards part-time degrees, and could that sound the death knell for the university estate? RLB UK’s head of education, Stephen Scott, explores changing trends for university estates…

Recent figures released by UCAS indicate a 4% drop in the number of applications received for full-time university courses. This is the first time numbers have dropped since fees were increased to £9,000 a year. The number of mature students applying, in particular was down.

Do these statistics herald the start of the much talked about trend to more flexible part-time “earn while you learn” degrees and a need for remote, digital learning? Will this in turn lead to a decline in the demand for new university buildings and a prestigious university estate geared to attracting full-time students?

The idea of part-time degree courses aimed at those who want to advance their career while obtaining a degree is not a new one but has been greatly enhanced by the digital revolution or evolution in teaching methods. Over the last decade, we have seen the steady rise of technology-rich teaching that allows courses to be delivered with flexible timings and regardless of geography. Witness the success of social learning platforms such as FutureLearn and the increase in international students being able to obtain degrees from sought-after UK universities without having to set foot in them.

This technology also offers flexibility around when people choose to learn and significantly enhances the ability to fit courses around a career. As an example, today’s technology enables students to do lecture-style learning in their own time, only coming together for all-important face-to-face tutorials and discussion groups.

So, universities are no longer bound by their physical structures – they can offer learning opportunities to a global community in multiple campuses and countries, and to timescales chosen by the individual student.

Does this mark the end of the physical university estate? No, not at all.

A purely online approach is clearly not suitable for all faculties. Some subjects are more suited to a higher level of virtual interaction than other fields of study, which require more hands-on experience and specialist facilities such as laboratories, workshops or studio space. At the same time, these technical facilities will require the investment to remain leading edge and high-spec to attract students. An example is the Health & Life Sciences Building at the University of Reading that, once built, will provides flexible teaching labs as well as 21st-century facilities to attract staff and deliver cutting-edge research.

There is no doubt in my mind that many people will also still want the full university student experience. Anecdotally, attendance at this year’s open days is up, indicating a potential increase in applications next year. For this group, first-class accommodation and facilities will remain key to attracting them – and their expectations will only increase.

Other students may want to have a more blended and affordable approach, combining work with shorter blocks of intensive learning. With the introduction of the government’s Apprenticeship Levy this year, more than 60 universities are promoting the delivery of apprenticeship programmes. A recent report from Universities UK estimated there will be a massive 658% increase in degree apprentice entrants – from 640 in 2015-16 to 4,850 in 2017-18.

All this points to the need for a more flexible estate that can respond to the different ways that people want to complete their higher education experience.

We are already seeing the demand for buildings to have more flexible design that facilitates easy reconfiguration and flexible use of space. For example, we are working with Royal Holloway, University of London, to develop a future fit building, with column-free space that allows the maximum internal reconfiguration of space with the minimal impact on the building. The design also includes collaborative lecture facilities and technology-rich teaching spaces.

In fact, if anything, how a university manages its estate will become even more important in how it responds to changing trends and a wider range of teaching styles. Estate masterplanning will increasingly become a central pillar to university strategy to help it respond flexibly to changing space demands. The proof is in the planning.

The universities that we work with at RLB to create robust masterplans are not only able to embrace and adapt to change more readily, but also to create efficient and effective buildings that can adapt to a range of uses now and in the future. From taking an overview of the estate to maximise building use, to providing creative spaces for student engagement, a masterplan will never be perfect but it will enable you to assess the impact changes will have on the building and / or campus and the budget. It will enable you to take an overview and be future fit. It will certainly stop you building yourself into a corner you can’t get out of.

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