What if flashier buildings don’t make happier learners?

First published 3rd August 2016 on the Society for Research into Higher Education’s News Blog

In some respects, students at UK universities have never had it so good. Dusty old lecture theatres are being torn down and shimmering new ‘learning environments’ erected in their place. Between 2013 and 2017, outlay on buildings and facilities at higher-prestige institutions alone matched that spent on the London Olympics (BiGGAR Economics, 2014), with some universities issuing public bonds to raise extra coffers for campus development projects.

PM3199093But how can the UK Higher Education sector be sure that its unprecedented levels of capital expenditure are leveraging commensurate ground-level pedagogical gains? Evaluation mechanisms, where they exist, tend not to be student-centred. For example, the Association of University Directors of Estates reports that income per square metre increased by 34 per cent across the sector between 2004 and 2013. While this might make for a healthy balance sheet, it tells us little about the ways in which staff and students engage with their environment. As Paul Temple noted in his 2007 report for the Higher Education Academy (“Learning Spaces for the 21st Century”), university buildings have the potential to transform how learning happens. The challenge for the sector is how best to assess their impact.

Earlier this year, I published initial evidence from a collaboration between researchers at the University of Manchester and Kingston University. We took one new building at one higher-prestige university, conducted detailed interviews with 10 staff members and 28 students, and surveyed over 200 other users. Positive feedback was common: students relished airy, well lit corridors, with comfy seating areas for pre- and post-session collaboration; open spaces could be ‘colonised’ and made their own; water coolers, and other features associated with workplace environments, drove new conversations.


However, not all responses were as expected. Many students told us that attractive-looking buildings helped them to choose their university, but when asked to rank what would most improve their experience now, fewer than 5 per cent prioritised their learning environment. Students’ primary needs were much likelier to be staff-related – they wanted more academics to be more available more often, both formally and informally.

Among staff, frustration was often expressed about ‘flexible’ spaces that could not be easily moulded to their teaching needs. Though communal areas were welcomed as a means to foster cohort identity, many associated capital expenditure with a tacit expectation that they should teach students in ever-larger groups. The design of buildings was often seen as a reflection of managerial naivety about their role: “I don’t even take a lunch break, let alone go and mingle,” said one in relation to an atrium designed to stimulate staff-student interaction. Others noted that many students lacked the critical thinking and other independent skills that their new learning environments implicitly demanded.

Indeed, a recurring theme in the interviews was the transition from school or college to university, which many felt was being disrupted, not smoothed, by campus architecture. “In college, you knew5images what everything was for,” said one student, capturing the wider view that more guidance was needed for students to exploit communal learning spaces. Few comparisons between school and university facilities favoured the latter. Technology was a particular focus of misunderstanding, with the design of new estates seeming to make untested assumptions about students’ digital learning dispositions and behaviours. While staff struggled to make unnecessarily intricate equipment work, students remarked that they didn’t “need everything all hi-tech all the time” anyway.

Our research, though no more than exploratory, raises important questions about the extent to which universities’ investment in new estate reflects students’ perceived pedagogical needs. It is clear that the sector could better consult about buildings’ design and better evaluate post-occupancy usage. A 2015 report by the Higher Education Policy Institute refers to an “arms race” in capital expenditure, and the risk is that pedagogy becomes the first casualty of universities’ recruitment wars. Only through long-term, systematic evaluation can we know whether the enormous resources being allocated benefit current students as well as lure new ones.

CJHEJones, Steven, Michael J. Sutcliffe, Joanna Bragg and Diane Harris. 2016. “To what extent is capital expenditure in UK Higher Education meeting the pedagogical needs of staff and students?” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Published online: 09 May 2016. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2016.1181881