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University estates enhance the student experience

Robbie Blackhurst, Framework Director of Procure Partnerships discusses the importance of developing a flexible university estate and how early contractor engagement can support this.

It was revealed that applications to university hit a record low last year, with universities struggling to fill places. With students now paying around £10,000 a year in tuition fees, and considerably more if arriving from abroad, universities rely on numbers to be sustainable. With Brexit on the horizon, the number of international students coming to the UK to study is likely to decrease too.

Although the numbers are down in 2018, these figures tend to fluctuate significantly year on year, which leaves education providers in a difficult situation. In the face of such uncertain student intake, education estates need to be flexible, adaptable and efficient. When delivering new university buildings, the whole-life cost must be considered so that even when incomes are lower, estates are not losing money.

To prevent university estates, which are expensive to upkeep and maintain, from swallowing revenue, it’s important that they are useable year-round, not just in term time. Event spaces should be opened up to businesses, and sports facilities should be available for the public to use. Of course, it’s not just as easy as opening your doors for the summer and watching the money roll in; university estates need to be designed and built with this in mind.

It’s all about the experience

Although it’s important that university buildings are constructed with the wider community in mind; first and foremost, it’s about the students. With many education providers across the North West attempting to get the attention of prospective students, the choice of university can simply come down to the type of facilities on offer and where they are located.

Liverpool John Moores University is in the process of delivering a central campus directly behind Liverpool Lime Street Station. It’s hard to get much more central than that, and this will be hugely appealing to students. Both Liverpool John Moores and the University of Liverpool have central campuses, despite major improvements in public transport, and this reflects what the modern student is looking for.

But it’s not just about attracting students, it’s important that they enjoy the place where they spend a great deal of time during their three years of studying. Environments should be appealing and rewarding too. Construction projects should be delivered with collaboration and communication in mind, and of course, should always be fit for purpose, suited to a diverse range of courses.

Early contractor involvement

With applications to higher education continuing to change year on year, it’s clear to see how important it is for university estates to be flexible, and of course, the way it is built is a key part of achieving this flexibility.

Contracts can have a pivotal role in ensuring that university estates are adaptable to a wide-range of users and uses. By involving contractors earlier we can encourage greater collaboration between architects and design teams, setting clearer briefs on the project and what it should comprise.

By getting onboard early, contractors also have the opportunity to work more closely with stakeholders, opening up better communication with universities and local authorities earlier, sharing local and national best practice and allowing greater insight into things like forecasted student numbers and land acquisition.

When contractors and stakeholders are all working together, from the very beginning of the construction process, the completed project is more likely to meet the original brief, and when developing a flexible university estate, this is vital. With student numbers decreasing, universities are all competing for applications, and ultimately, income, so it’s important that they offer the very best buildings and facilities, that are mixed-use, located in central locations and adaptable.