With tuition fees at an all-time high and competition among universities for top students fiercer than ever, high-quality and well-maintained facilities are more than a marketing tool. They’re essential for keeping students happy, enhancing the learning experience and promoting the university’s brand, says Shaun Johnson, business development manager at Integral UK, JLL’s UK facilities and engineering services firm.
“Expectations are high,” he says. “As soon as higher education became related to cost, the relationship between university and student moved towards something far closer to customer service.”
Students therefore expect the facilities they use on an everyday basis to function well and any issues to be quickly resolved. “Response times are key,” says Johnson. “Being able to fix a light in a matter of hours is the norm today.”
Technology has, says Johnson, been a major disruptor for universities, changing the way students interact and the very nature of learning. Fast and reliable WiFi connections are therefore considered to be a top priority among students. Coping with an increase in those online as more students bring devices into class means not only better bandwidth, but the ability to respond to connectivity issues when they arise.
Smart sensors that analyse space – like those increasingly being used in offices – can benefit students as well as facilities managers, says Johnson. The University of Birmingham, for example, is trialling devices that monitor how space in busy areas is used, providing real-time information to students looking for space to study and help the university to better manage its facilities.
“Some of the modern, flexible working methods that have evolved in the workplace are transferable to academic life,” says Johnson. “Being able to monitor when a university is busier can have all sorts of efficiency benefits for facilities managers – such as moving to skeleton staffing on a Friday when it’s clear a university building may only be at 40 percent capacity.”
When a university expands, Johnson says, it’s a great opportunity to install new ways of managing facilities. Major schemes such as the University of Leicester’s £500 million ongoing renovation or Durham University’s project, comprising an events hall, gym, music practice rooms, a launderette, faith room and administrative space, are a chance not only to revamp existing or deliver new buildings, but also the way space is managed.
But with many UK universities dating back decades, if not centuries, facilities managers need to have a good grasp of buildings from more than one era.
“A typical university campus can be a mix of red-brick Victorian to concrete polytechnic-era to modern glass,” he says. “In that respect, it’s not unlike hospitals and from a management perspective, it requires flexibility and skilled staff.”
The running of soft services, such as security, cleaning and catering, is evolving, says Johnson.
“The university canteen is now a different place to the days of the metal trolley and tea dispenser,” he says. “From healthier options in vending machines to ensuring that kitchens can cope with a wide range of dietary requirements, feeding hundreds or even thousands of students on a daily basis requires a huge amount of planning and management.”
Johnson says both insourcing and outsourcing options are evident across the UK’s university campuses. Hard services, such as technology and WiFi, heating and air-conditioning, are being outsourced. Conversely, in some cases, such as that of the University of London last year, services are being brought in-house.
“The higher education sector is at something of a crossroads and it’s hard to predict which way universities will choose to go – but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” he says. “But there’s some appetite for more all-round facilities management particularly for universities in in more rural locations, rather than an expanse of separate contracts.”
With league tables ranking universities on more than teaching and job prospects – and a variety of online forums and social media channels used by current and prospective students – universities quickly know when their facilities and their service levels fail to live up to the pictures on their website.
And with the number of universities in the UK growing rapidly in recent years, many of them have to find their own ways to attract students when they don’t have a world-renowned name and heritage to fall back on.
“Often, it’s the universities with that the greatest cost pressures that make major steps towards improving their facilities,” he says. “But with stiff competition for both UK and international student, all universities realise they need to offer increasingly higher levels of service.”