Higher student expectations, driving better design responses

David Strong of consultancy Curtins discusses how education institutions are responding to increased student expectations, and the current trends which are driving the design of education facilities

It’s no secret that to be popular with students and therefore be considered a ‘success’ by the institutions in charge, a university campus has to support a positive experience and quality of life for students. There are many different elements for the architect to consider, but creating a campus that is connected – both physically and socially – ensures it works as a whole.

The concept of ‘experience’ is integral to modern campus developments and has undoubtedly been driven by the digital age. A decade ago, students were reliant on a printed prospectus and their first-hand experience of campuses gained on open days across a few days per year. Now, everything they want to know and more is available at a few clicks. They can look at rankings and feedback given by others at any time, see photos and videos, and even look around the campus on Google maps. All of this means that students are understandably pickier when selecting their preferred university – a situation exacerbated by increases in tuition fees. Expectations are higher in regards to student facilities from all sides, providing further challenges for architects.

The international student market continues to grow, with five million students currently studying outside their home country, a number which is set to grow to eight million by 2025. It’s easy to see why high standards are expected as wherever they choose will essentially be their full-time home while in the UK. Their parents will also want greater reassurances that their child is secure and in the best possible environment to enjoy and make the most of their time abroad.

However, it is crucial that universities achieve the balance of experience in educational and social terms. While feeling part of a community is important to a successful university experience, students choose universities based on the ones they believe will give them the training and knowledge they need to pursue their chosen career. This means that new facilities have to be cutting edge – both in the physical building and the services within them.

Connected campuses
This striving towards connectivity on every level is being reflected in the type and design of facilities being constructed on university campuses, with recent years seeing a switch to more holistic schemes.

In terms of delivering a successful experience and creating a campus that stands out from the crowd, we’re seeing a much greater emphasis on the interrelationship between buildings. More commonly than not, we are briefed on projects, alongside architects, that must work to complement the campus as a whole with infrastructure and the movement of those using it vital to our considerations.

This may mean that sometimes an educational institution will invest in a building that is solely for the purpose of providing students with a sense of ‘centrality,’ and encouraging them to socialise and be active in the community. A good example of giving a campus a central point is The Heart of the Campus project at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), for which we provided civil and structural engineering.

This award-winning project sat within the existing NTU Clifton campus and created a vibrant central pavilion with a new state-of-the-art teaching block, a fully refurbished refectory, and full external landscaping. The design of the new building took advantage of the natural slope on the site and created a broad, south facing covered colonnade terrace which overlooked the other university buildings. The result has been a clear focal point located in a central location, which the campus had lacked until that point.

Of course the development of any new building means balancing the needs of end users and the university and aligning those with both the brief, and crucially the budget. A successful scheme will create what is increasingly being called a ‘sticky campus’. New buildings must naturally integrate and work alongside existing buildings on the wider campus, ensuring that students are encouraged to stay and spend their time – and money – on site, and more importantly creates a feeling of community and inclusivity.

Affordability is an ongoing topic for debate; there is an ever-present challenge of striking a balance between accommodations that is at the right price-point for the target market and providing high-quality living spaces that not only meet the growing expectations of students, but which also give the educational institution an attractive edge.

There is a definite art when it comes to achieving the delicate balance of these many differing requirements, and this is what makes working in the education sector both exciting and unique. Not only does your work have to meet the needs of the end-user, those paying the fees, and the university itself, but potentially an additional stakeholder which is quite commonly a business of some kind. We’ve certainly seen a significant rise in recent years of links between higher education and industry – for example the University of Warwick, and ongoing investment from the large players in the automotive industry.

With the education sector continuing to evolve and remain of great importance to attracting the best talent for this country’s employers, in addition to being vital for the UK economy in general, architects and developers must ensure that they are working together to create the best possible student experience.

The balancing of many ever-moving parts is an ongoing challenge in the sector, which brings with it the positive opportunity to introduce new and innovative solutions, collaborating with others to develop effective design solutions that meet the needs of both students and universities.

David Strong is executive director at built environment consultancy Curtins