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Guest Blog: Christian Bull - Mills & Reeve

Christian Bull is a real estate lawyer helping education institutions and companies in England and Wales with all legal aspects of their estate. This includes leases, licences, joint ventures, mergers, leasebacks, sales, purchases, shared services, collaborations, refurbishments and (re)development projects.

Christian works with clients' estates, management and senior leadership teams as a sounding board or a second opinion on significant capital.

Here he discusses the future of Universities’ learning spaces and estates planning…

The nature of universities’ future learning spaces, and hence the estates planning needed, is changing and will continue to change.

So, why is this change happening and what will future learning spaces look like?

Challenges Affecting Higher Education 

There are numerous challenges affecting higher education, which in turn impact how institutions plan their estate. The largest and most obvious challenge is money. A combination of shrinking public funding for universities, fluctuating student numbers, tuition fee caps, growing regulation and lack of demand for certain courses (e.g. foreign languages), results in increased pressure on universities’ estates teams when planning, maintaining and developing the campus. In the face of these challenges, these teams still have to invest in learning and living spaces to attract the best staff, students, academic and commercial stakeholders. There is also economic and reputational pressure to maintain and enhance the ‘student experience’ in the face of growing competition.

Financial challenges are also combined with uncertainty surrounding Brexit (particularly future capital funding and free movement), ambiguity over what’s next after the Augar report, technological change, students’ evolving expectations and working styles (a growing preference for a 24/7 study anytime/anywhere way of learning) and reports of inefficient use of some institutions’ buildings and facilities with poor utilisation. What this all means is how estates teams plan, develop and manage some of their learning spaces will evolve. Flexibility will be at the heart of this thinking. This adaptability could take numerous forms. For example, there will be some repurposing of parts of universities’ estates and facilities such as for offices and co-working spaces. There may also be an increase in the number of mixed-use schemes on campus possibly involving housing, start-ups, spin-outs, retail and pop-ups.

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Particularly for those institutions facing real financial challenges, the sector’s traditional approach of each university spending significant funds (often from a combination of cash reserves and external funding) on major refurbishments or capital projects comprising fixed learning (such as large-scale lecture theatres) and living spaces in fixed locations for fixed purposes will be revisited. Certain other functions such as administrative centres, often located in expensive city centres, may also be moved to more cost-effective locations. The usual approach of institutions then managing and maintaining these costly facilities and spaces alone may also reduce.

Funding Pressures for Universities 

Funding pressures will mean that the risk and reward of delivering and then managing some of universities’ estates may be increasingly shared with third parties such as companies, other charities, research organisations and public sector stakeholders such as the NHS and local authorities. Some of these third-party collaborators may become more permanent, involving them staying on campus, utilising and contributing towards the shared learning spaces. This could also tap into and advance the growing employability agenda for universities and their students.

Financial pressures also mean that the planning of future learning spaces, as well as the spaces themselves, will evolve. Master planning will increasingly focus on a return on investment from the campus and its developments. There will be an increased need for robust business cases, particularly for high cost, high profile developments. As part of this, universities’ estates and senior leadership teams, as well as governors, will need to place greater emphasis not only on the costs of delivering large-scale campus capital projects but also on ongoing maintenance costs, maximising utilisation with an ability to adapt and co-share land, buildings and learning spaces for future and third party use.

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Money is not the only factor driving change. Students’ preferences for more group study and flexible learning and teaching may mean smaller, open plan, group learning collaborative zones. These zones, again to maximise return on investment, can be adapted to deliver enhanced utilisation and cost efficiencies. For example, when not being used for learning or teaching, or perhaps as part of that learning or teaching (depending on the academic programme), the spaces could also be used for functions, pop-ups, conferences, exhibitions and community events. The flexibility of these spaces and facilities may also generate an income, for instance by letting parts and hiring out other spaces for a capital return.

Technology is also a consideration. Students are digitally dependent and expectant. Campus learning, living and research spaces are assumed to be, and need to be, fully ‘smart’ with integrated IT throughout. This rapid technological revolution also takes another form. The growth of online, remote teaching and learning in a globalised competitive environment, driven by course fee savings and more part-time, adult, working learners also suggests that some ‘hard’ physical learning spaces will be smaller and possibly fewer in number.

The Future of Learning Spaces 

What’s clear is that learning spaces going forward will not all look like they do now. That said, it’s important to note that one size doesn’t fit all – not all universities’ evolving learning spaces will take the form of the above and some institutions are already ahead of the curve.

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It should also be recognised that the adaptability of some parts of the campus, such as engineering and science labs, will not always be achievable or desirable. Estates teams will also need to be mindful of safeguarding and health and safety considerations as well as the importance of preserving the ‘student experience’ when third parties are increasingly involved with on-campus learning spaces. What is clear though, is learning spaces will increasingly be a blend of the shared, physical and digital and estates teams will need to plan for this.

To contact Christian or for more information about Mills & Reeve and their work with universities, visit the website - Mills & Reeve 

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