Universities are working in an intensely competitive and commercial environment – now more so than ever. The key to attracting new students and promising them an enhanced and engaging experience is believed to be very much down to one of the most important weapons in a university’s arsenal – its campus.
In CUBO’s recent Campus Experience Survey, some 92 per cent of respondents confirmed they will be investing at least £100m in their campus over the next five years, while 45 per cent said they would be spending between £100-300m.
These are significant sums, equating to one year’s annual turnover in the majority of cases. A clear indication that the campus offering is viewed as a significant factor in helping to recruit new undergraduates as well as motivate and retain staff, and allow for new commercial streams to come into play – income streams that will be sought to fill any shortfall in funding.
Where to spend wisely?
The vast majority of universities are understandably looking to spend the lion’s share of their investment on general infrastructure and new teaching and research buildings. However, there is a greater recognition of the integrated nature of the campus experience and the interlinkage between academic and social experiences.
The CUBO survey explored four key aspects of campus services – accommodation, catering, retail and sport – and looked at how universities currently rate their services.
There are growing calls for institutions and departments to move away from task-based thinking; to go beyond the academic and link more with the community and civic engagement, and create a greater sense of community and belonging. Higher education leaders need to engage students to prolong their time on campus; hence the rise of the “sticky campus”, a concept where students are encouraged to stay on campus between lectures.
Institutions are investing in social learning spaces, such as areas for group working, with charging points for devices and provision of screens, as well as quiet study spaces. However the spend focused on these social areas, on the public realm and student and staff experiences falls much further down the list of overall priorities, according to the Campus Experience report.
In addition, provision of food preparation facilities and coffee machines was far less common, yet this could be an area that proves to be a vital conduit between students and the campus, especially where, as reported by the majority of respondents, catering facilities are not open beyond traditional university opening times. Longer opening hours and greater accessibility are key factors to consider here, as is the opportunity to invite commercial businesses onto the site – both catering and retail.
Prolonging student time on campus, engaging them through shared experiences and engaging spaces, will help to bring about a greater community feel, which can form a very important and integral part of the campus experience for both residential and commuter students, the latter being a group that is often least well-served.
Appealing to all
Commuter students are important and may play a greater role on campuses in the future. Over half of the institutions that responded to the survey had no specific services or facilities in place for them, so clearly more can be done here.
Of the universities that had or were developing services, the main schemes were around cycle and other transport related initiatives. However, greater access to public learning spaces, the provision of storage, showering and cooking facilities, temporary accommodation during exam periods and convenient timetabling of lectures are all areas that can greatly assist commuter students and encourage them to spend more time on campus. Which in turn helps the diversity and inclusiveness of the student body on site and grows the campus community.
As for the local community, less than 10 per cent of universities felt their campuses worked well for their immediate neighbours. And yet there are opportunities here too – in terms of development and enhancement of community elements and linking with the community and commercial clients – all strategically important and highly competitive areas for institutions which could be embraced as part of their future growth strategy.
An empowered campus is a successful campus
Delivering the campus experience and fulfilling student needs is very much down to teams on site. They survey suggests that the more involvement and empowerment a team has, the more it will help them to make a difference, drive initiatives and deliver a more successful campus. And a more successful campus will continuously engage with students on many levels, reinforcing a positive on-site experience.
Interestingly, those in the survey who felt more empowered were more likely to have taken inspiration from other coworking establishments. Gathering ideas and experience from outside the institution can feed into the design of campus services – sources of insight include other national and international universities, restaurants, high street, holiday villages, stadiums, food markets, exhibitions, study tours and trend surveys.
Sharing knowledge is of great benefit and campus services professionals can only gain from a stronger, more robust and collective voice to share best practice and advocate for targeted investment across key areas.
In this competitive climate, development needs to go beyond bricks and mortar. The whole experience is retained long after a person has left the campus, and a more holistic approach to the campus and student experience, as well as staff empowerment, will create a stronger, wider university community from which institutions will reap rewards in the long run.