University estates as presented in film and TV are endlessly golden-hued lands of privilege. We picture Morse, as he ambles grumpily round a crime-infested cloister.

Our collective mental image of a university somehow got stuck in the 1950s, a place where the reality – that 50% of us now go to university, that 80% of us never “succeed” in paying back the debts we incur to fund that education, and that the vast majority of students go nowhere near a golden cloister – is subsumed beneath the image. Even those of us who are deeply ingrained within higher education can’t quite escape the stereotype that a university estate is almost exactly like an enormous Bodleian Library: mile after mile of beautiful sandstone, hushed halls quiet beneath twiddles of the Gothic.

And of course, there are universities that are the homes of significant amounts of heritage buildings. Oxford and Cambridge for sure, and Scotland’s great medieval universities. As our cities grew exponentially in the 19th and early 20th centuries Manchester, London and Birmingham raced to gain university status for existing colleges; and for the estates teams managing these institutions, and many more around the country from Bristol to Belfast, a significant part of the task is to manage heritage.

But the reverse is also true. Heritage? Sure. But it’s much more accurate to imagine universities as the homes of the very shiniest of 21st-century glass and steel. In straightforward numbers, just 20% of the overall university estate was built before 1914, while more than a quarter was built since the year 2000.

The complex reality

For every hallowed hall, a digitally-enhanced teaching space. For every tired accommodation block awaiting a decision on demolition or refurbishment, a new state-of-the-art lecture theatre. For every institution borrowing easily and cheaply to invest in the estate during a relative golden age of available finance, another that is…in a less comfortable position. University estates are a massively varied thing, and acknowledging this complexity is the most vital word in our beginner’s guide to university estates.

The complexity of materials: success, mediocrity, or failure in design terms alone as a type of complexity. The complexity of use: appropriateness to student and staff need, appropriateness as teaching spaces, appropriateness as research spaces. The complexity of character, as institutions validated by decades and even centuries of past excellence, adapt to the needs of a digital age. To chase the latest 5-star standard of excellence in incorporating new technologies within our buildings while avoiding costly and almost inevitable obsolescence: well, it’s complex.

To maintain, or re-purpose, or demolish and start again: well, it’s complex. Complexity in cost, complexity in funding, complexity as examples of project and change management, complexity in size and scale and sustainability, complexity in our buildings as they interact with their surroundings, with our cities, with our towns, let alone the physical changes in a busy University estate.

Our universities are coming up with different answers to this complexity based on many factors, including the balance of their capital to operating expenditure; levels of existing debt; speed of growth or shrinkage in expected student numbers; appetite amongst governing bodies for risk, and more. As such, there’s no right or wrong answer to many of the questions they face, just an answer that will be seen in hindsight to have sustained the institution during troubled times and allowed it to thrive in the long run. And hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing.

In thinking about the challenge facing universities as they manage their estates, maybe it’s best to highlight a few key themes.

Heritage or new build?

Estates teams must manage both, and be clear on the relative strengths and weaknesses of all the buildings on the estate. There’s an audience for the characterful and old, just as there is for the shiny and new. It’s easy to assume too much in thinking about the differences between new and old – for instance, that the older building may be attractive and influential in attracting both students and staff, but difficult and costly to maintain, and not fit for many of the uses required of a modern university building, or difficult to adapt to changing technologies. Heritage certainly contributes to sense of place, a sometimes indefinable but important ingredient in creating student experience and making memorable to stakeholders the magic of what takes place there.

The new build, in contrast, may give universities a chance for a restart, and a quicker and easier way of adapting to new technology or pedagogical change. But universities are having to make decisions for the long term (a building life is at least 60 years and maybe longer) at a time when tech generations last about five years. It is increasingly the buildings of the 1950s to 80s where large sums are being spent on maintenance (and adaptations).

When it comes to heritage vs new, few of our easy assumptions stand in all circumstances. What is true, is that universities are increasingly focused on repurposing rather than rebuilding, and on the flexibility of design that allows for adaptation in future. The sector has many great examples of repurposing older buildings. Some of these buildings are Listed, which creates its complications. A great example would be the Clarence Centre at London South Bank University that has converted a pub and Georgian terraces into an enterprise and innovation centre.

Getting the basics right

The Grenfell tower fire is a dreadful reminder to us all that getting the basics right – safety being the first of them – always has to be at the very front of our minds in thinking about estates. The fires at the Glasgow School of Art, though thankfully not on the same scale of the tragedy, remind us of the fragility of places we value highly.

With the Grenfell public inquiry still sitting, the entire industry from architects to construction companies and their clients await inevitable recommendations for change, especially in the building regulations. A significant part of the daily effort within universities estates teams goes to answering the simple question “Is this safe?”. Universities spend significant monies each year on long term maintenance, making sure the buildings operate safely, the roofs don’t leak, and the engineering services work to support the activities of the university.

Other basics might be around efficiency and effectiveness. Does the estate operate efficiently? Can it be maintained at a reasonable cost? Does it enable the right people to be in the right place for the right amount of time? In an increasingly 24/7 world, in which student and staff expectations of the estate are ever-evolving, do our key buildings such as libraries need to be open round-the-clock, and if so what does that mean for staffing and facilities management – from security to cleaning? Perhaps the most effective measure of efficiency is in overall income per square metre of estate – the combination of student fees, commercial services and other income-generating activities that sustain the universities’ activities.

Is enough income generated to match the size of the estate? Are our estates effective as learning spaces, effective in accommodating the right numbers of people, effective in attracting both domestic and international students, effective in attracting co-operation from industry or civic society? Many of these are pretty fundamental questions, and it is estates teams that are answering them.

AUDE specifically sets Efficiency as one of its KPIs for its institutional-level members – the others being Quality, Value and Sustainability. Maintenance and energy costs are the two biggest elements of the overall cost of managing the estate, and latest indicators (in AUDE Estates Management Report for 2018) are that a consistent downwards push on both mean that in total universities are spending no more in these areas than they were ten years ago: that’s efficiency in action.

But efficiency can also be thought of in other ways – teaching space per full-time student for instance, or property costs as a percentage of academic income, or space devoted to non-teaching staff per full-time student. There’s a context-specific interplay here between the need of the university to function, the need to generate income from non-teaching activity and the wish to spend as great a proportion of the whole as possible on the student experience. A large research-intensive institution and a small teaching institution will come up with different answers.

So what else are estates teams measuring?

32% of the overall university estate was built during the big expansion in UK higher education of the 1960s and 70s. How are all those middle-aged buildings doing? When estates teams measure Quality, it may well be buildings from this period that are most likely to give them indigestion. All estates teams carry out an endless rolling programme of upgrades and refurbishments to ensure their buildings remain high in quality and functionally suitable, and we grade quality on an A to D scale, with a consistent pattern of between 70 and 80% of the estate attaining the two top grades at any one time.

Universities are also thinking about value as a KPI – by that, we mean income generated per metre squared of the estate. Our largest teaching institutions tend to come out best on this measurement. In considering Sustainability, at its most obvious we mean things like reducing carbon emissions, energy costs and consumption. Here the picture is mixed, and we sometimes have to think counter-intuitively. New buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than old ones, but that very efficiency means they also tend to be used for longer hours, leading to an overall increase in energy use.

Research-intensive universities tend to have higher energy bills too – new and expensive technologies driving up costs. Sustainability as a concept also helps estates teams think about the cost of replacement. With institutions investing around 5% per year of the total cost of replacement, in effect, they assume a total replacement over a 20-year timespan.

Student and staff experience

The reality is that whether at £9k per student or another to-be-confirmed Augar number, universities are in stiff competition for students, staff and research income, and maintaining the quality of student and staff experience is vital. That means everything from wellbeing services to leisure facilities to commercial operations to landscaping to lab spaces to local bus routes and car parking is on the agenda for estates teams – as is the complicated network of legal agreements that underpins such service provision. The options for choice, for prioritisation of one type of service over another, is huge – but then so is the possibility for getting it wrong. But placing student need at the heart of those choices is a clear business imperative.

The nature of the residential estate is key in these choices. More than 380,000 student beds are under the control of university estates teams either through direct ownership or via lease from a private provider. Getting the balance of accommodation right is one of the single most important questions facing our estate’s teams, with income of around £7,000 per bed relying on the right answer. But also, the investment into the residential estate is significant. At the University of Surrey, a 1960s campus university, there is a 5-year cyclical refurbishment programme of the residential accommodation, and last summer this meant refurbishing over 1,200 student rooms.

In financing the overall estate institutions have no choice other than to push for quality – students (and parents) and staff expect nothing less.

The estate of things to come

AUDE’s data suggests “the state of the estate” is now just about as good as it has ever been against all our key indicators. Many things are going in the right direction, from making our universities into welcoming and accessible spaces for all community stakeholders to the provision of better-quality accommodation, to our management of energy. But there’s a widespread sense too of holding our breath, waiting for…usually Brexit and Augur…to make the future situation clearer.

4 responses to “A beginner’s guide to university estates

  1. It’s highly speculative to suggest that HESA (specifically EMR) data demonstrates that the University Estate is generally “just about as good as it has ever been”. Interpreting reduced (in real terms) maintenance costs as evidence of efficiency is one way of looking a the data, another might be that University’s are reducing their maintenance spend because they can’t afford to maintain their Estate to an appropriate standard….

  2. Forever Autumn, thanks for the comment and question. We ought to have been firmer in the way we stated our opinion, which is that “the overall quality of the university estate is as good as it has ever been against all our key indicators”. Your suggestion that universities may be reducing maintenance spend because they can’t afford to maintain the estate might be true of an individual case. But across the whole data, for the entire university estate, we’ve seen a pattern of over 10 years now in which our Quality KPI (graded on an A to D scale) consistently shows between 70 and 80% of the estate rated at the top two levels. Lower spend, same quality = efficiency, and we think that’s a reasonable conclusion to draw.

Leave a Reply