The first three most important aspects are data, data, and...data. Without it we are guessing, many institutions have little more than an infrequent and superficial building condition survey upon which to base decisions. The cost of the estate is second only to salary costs for most universities, it is only through a detailed understanding of the physical condition and potential opportunities for the estate that future demands can be met.
This data is of little use, other than for maintaining the existing estate and maintaining the status quo, unless there is a clear estate strategy that supports the academic and institutional plans. The big questions have become more difficult, here we consider a few of them:
- Income is static, costs rise every year, the universities do not want to, or cannot, borrow any more cash. Do they earn more, spend less, or both?
- How much and what type of space do they really need, and where can we save space?
- Can we generate income from the contraction of our estate or wider use of the facilities we have?
- What will the balance of the blended learning model between on-site and on-campus be, and does this change the facilities we need?
- Is the current cost of HE education sustainable, will programmes be shorter, blended with work and education and how much do the facilities need to change to support this?
- Expectations and competition are increasing, what is going to make us more appealing than the others?
- How can we meet the carbon reduction targets given the existing university estates and the limited money available to spend?
- How can university staff think differently and respond positively to the changes required given often entrenched views?
The biggest question of all is what do students want, are we sure we understand, and how do we deliver?
The pandemic has forced a need for change. Initially, these have been reactive changes to accommodate the health issues of social distancing, blended working, and remote learning against a backdrop, in the last 18 months of changing attitudes. Whilst these were enforced changes, the future shift must now move towards a revised consideration of pro-active change to address the need for an estate campus to adopt to a new way of working. The 'genie is out of the bottle' as far as partial homeworking and online working is concerned, we will likely never return to a time pre-pandemic of all turning up to the same place to work every day, 5 days per week. This is not a bad thing, but change is always a challenge and enforced change for big business such as the university system will always be difficult.