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Estate change agents

Mark Paget Skelin argues that Covid-19 will have a significant impact on university buildings

The pandemic has brought into question many aspects of university life taken for granted over the past 50 to 60 years, including the physical campus.

Many universities have expanded the size of their estates recently in the drive to build better (and sometimes bigger) new facilities to attract students from both home and abroad in an ever more competitive market. But an overnight shift from the office to working from home during Covid has now made large amounts of university office space redundant.

Typically, over a third of a university’s estate has consisted of office space, either for academic staff or for administrative purposes, with the remainder used for a mix of general teaching, specialist teaching and informal learning. As the workforce adapts to home working, the introduction of desk booking and alterations and reconfigurations of the spaces available on campus are likely.

End of lecture theatres

These reductions in office space at universities will combine with the demise of purpose-built lecture theatres, as most lectures are likely to remain online in future. However, this will be compensated for, to some extent, by increases in space for ‘collaborative learning’, where students will come together regularly to meet and collaborate through peer-to-peer learning and tutorial support. These redesigned spaces could even extend to outdoor areas on campus, equipped with all-weather seating and electronic chalk boards.

Greater emphasis on wellbeing and health in a post-Covid world is already increasing demand for more open space for sport, walking and breaks between classes on university campuses. As a result, the size of a typical university campus is expected to shrink by around 30 per cent, as discussed at a recent Association of University Directors of Estates conference, but while the campus will be smaller it will have higher-quality facilities, and a higher proportion of open space.

The campus of the future will also be in a good position to reduce its carbon footprint, as older, less energy-efficient buildings become redundant and are either demolished, repurposed or sold.

Into the high street

The impact of Covid on the high street has been catastrophic, with many retailers having to close. Empty space on high streets and in shopping malls has sparked interest from several universities that would have been unable to afford the previously high rental costs for this sort of estate. This should help to regenerate many city centres.

A university in the United States has already taken over a vacant shopping mall and incorporated it as part of its campus. In England, the University of Gloucestershire has recently purchased the old Debenhams department store in Gloucester to use as lecture halls and training spaces, and the sale of a redundant department store in Oxford has also attracted interest from the higher education sector.

Meanwhile, universities are looking at how to extend the use of their estates by allowing local communities and voluntary groups to use meeting areas or other unused space. This could include after-school use by pupils, allowing them to access IT facilities for homework or revision.

Many university campuses may also be able to repurpose their underused buildings to act as a bridge between learning and work. Startup businesses, local enterprises and possibly even the NHS could use space within a campus or city centre building while collaborating with the university’s students—something that could lead these students to jobs and other career opportunities.

Universities will need to take the initiative and build on existing relationships with local enterprises, startups and other businesses, especially in areas in which they have a particular specialisation, such as in sciences, research or IT.

Bringing in business

But the real step change will be to successfully integrate local enterprises into redundant buildings and learning spaces within the university campus, while generating much needed rental income for the university. Partnerships formed with these businesses could become as important a factor in future student choice of university as the courses and facilities on offer.

In the same way, universities should look to forge greater links with local NHS providers, who may be in the process of looking to reconfigure their healthcare facilities in the community. We already have a tried-and-tested network of collaborations between teaching hospitals and the universities providing education and training to those hospitals, although that has rarely extended to using the university estate for housing new NHS facilities.

Opening up a university campus or a city centre site to NHS community use could present real benefits for all sides: shared facilities for the NHS, a rental income stream for the university, and tangible health and wellbeing benefits for the local student population.

The higher education estate is likely to change significantly in a post-Covid world and will need to become more flexible and adaptive, while underused parts of the estate will need to be repurposed, opened up to complementary uses or sold. However, universities should beware of knee-jerk reactions.

Any plans to radically change an estate need to be thought through carefully as the impact of those changes is likely to be long-term.

Mark Paget Skelin is a partner at law firm Bevan Brittan.