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Higher education estate – evolution or revolution?

Estates teams in the HE sector face a raft of challenges, writes Laura Ludlow, including reduced income from overseas students, third term rent refunds and the likely reduction of public sector spending in the near future.

These are in addition to pre-pandemic challenges such as fluctuating student numbers and growing regulation in the HE sector. It is widely agreed when thinking about a post-Covid world that life will not carry on as it had been pre-pandemic, and that there is no “return to normal”.

But does the future present more challenges than opportunities, thus sparking a revolution in the way that HE is delivered? Does it offer the opportunity for an evolution, an improved way of providing HE that blends the best of both the pre- and post-pandemic methods?

The use of online learning as a result of the pandemic is here to stay. This will increase access to HE to a wider range of potential learners that previously may have been unable to attend university under the traditional model, for example older or working students.

But this does not necessarily mean the demise of physical learning spaces, the corresponding accommodation or a central campus.

Recent surveys have shown that the majority of students feel that the social aspects of attending university are invaluable, which signifies a demand for a physical space.

The idea of transitioning entirely to online learning is too simplistic a solution and underestimates the human side of HE. For instance, according to a recent Unite poll, 79% of respondents said that being away from home and on campus is a key part of the university experience and 9 out of 10 students were willing to return to campus (provided it was safe to).

Covid-19 may have accelerated the digital campus but this does not reduce the requirement for investment in the estate by universities. Indeed, investment will need to be a priority in order for institutions to remain competitive in the market. New spaces can be built with a focus on mixed-use, or older real estate can be refurbished or re-purposed with a focus on high quality technology and virtual learning.

We predict that although some administrative space may not be required in the same way as before, and there may be an increase in distance or virtual learning, the physical campus is not dead. Flexibility will be key, with the campus offering social space for collaborative activities, as well as private study space for those who prefer to work on campus rather than at home. Research projects, particularly in science and technology, cannot develop optimally in isolation and many courses require students to have a hands-on experience in labs or studios.

Through collaborations with third parties and more reliance on the private sector, institutions can take advantage of the opportunities to use the physical space for innovative purposes. Despite the rise in the digital campus, the demand for a physical campus remains.

Laura Ludlow is principal associate at Mills & Reeve. Find out more about the future of Universities & Colleges and the real estate sector with our interactive ‘Mapping the FutuRE’

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