Can university redevelopments pass the test of modern education?

The urban campus concept is breathing new life into universities challenged by changing study habits and growing competition 

September 28, 2018

As online education thins out classrooms, and revenue pressures grow, the purpose of the university campus has become a study in human experience

Theory has it if you create a place where classrooms and research labs can stand alongside shops, cafes and offices, and healthy encounters of people can occur, then you’ll go straight to head of class.

Crucially, as education grows into one of Australia’s most competitive landscapes, this urbanised campus concept can help generate revenue, be it through leasing space or land, attracting research funding, or the fees of students who will inevitably knock down the doors of the coolest places to bag a degree.

As this new reality sets in, several universities have mobilised with visionary redesign and redevelopment projects to future proofing their assets and all-important image.

The Royal Melbourne Institute of technology’s Academic Street redevelopment drew inspiration from Melbourne’s laneway culture and the 24-hour city playbook to turn a dark and disjointed campus into a collection of lively buildings, light-filled laneways and outdoor terraces, opening the facility up to Melbourne’s central business district.

Its neighbour Monash University introduced its ground breaking new Learning and Teaching Building at its Clayton campus, incorporating reconfigurable spaces to accommodate different learning styles. It’s Faculty of Education bedded in a progressive workplace strategy to enhance productivity and collaboration.

Meanwhile, at the Australian National University in Canberra, a popup village is giving students a taste of what’s to come with its A$220 million Union Court revitalisation, combining teaching and learning facilities with new food, retail and cultural amenities in a landscaped setting.

The most effective projects reflect the narrowing gap between education and lifestyle, says Glen Searle, honorary associate professor in planning at Sydney University.

“There are definitely more places to sit down and logon these days, but there’s still a lot work to do in making sure rooms and lecture theatres are used as much as they could be. Often they are full at the start of a semester and then attendance completely falls away, emptying them out. It’s not very efficient.”

Standing out from the crowd

When some of the best universities in the world are offering online courses for free, the university campus has to become a compelling selling point, says Dinesh Acharya, a director of workplace strategy for JLL.

“In an increasingly online world, it becomes all the more important to create memorable real-world experiences for students. This is why many universities are investing heavily in building design.

“But creating a vibrant campus is more than just designing the physical space. The opportunity is to create interconnected services and experiences tailored to individual needs. Understanding who those individuals are and what motivates them is the first step.”

Bree Trevena, a PhD researcher in the research unit of Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne, suggests campus-centred public programming to activate spaces.

“This might involve inviting the ‘neighbours’ over not only for public lectures, but also for summer day parties and winter footy matches. Private-sector tenants might include farmers’ markets and lifestyle retailers, making the quad more like a local high street,” she wrote in an article for The Conversation.

Mobile apps, too, can elevate the campus experience by helping students navigate amenities, fast track their development with online training, or tap into support networks, says Michael Taggart, Director of Technology Solutions for JLL Australia.

“Mobiles have not only become a fundamental tool to engage students, but also to help institutions understand their behaviours so they can help them succeed.”

International students

A joined-up online-offline experience can be a university’s key differentiator in the race to attract discerning international students.

With government funding for domestic students largely out of pace with university ambitions, full fee-paying international students are a critical source of revenue.

The opportunity for universities is to capture this expanding student sector. This year alone Australia has had a record 525,000 enrolments – a 12 per cent increase compared to last year. International student fees contribute A$32.2 billion to universities in total.

Return on investment

As well as students being willing to pay more for enhanced facilities, businesses are eager to partner with reputable research institutions. A reinvented university campus, underpinned by a strong business plan, can unlock this potential revenue stream, says Walter Rafin, Head of Solutions Development, Australasia and Pacific, at JLL Australia.

Though he warns that institutionalised thinking, protected buildings, and funding constraints can sometimes be roadblocks to progress.

“Businesses, tech start-ups, retail organisations – they are all potential tenants that could crack the issue of under-occupancy in university buildings and unlock revenue. The scope is huge,” he says.

“As well as drive efficiencies, a robust facilities management plan can manage challenges around security, aged facilities, heritage listed buildings, asbestos and the opportunity to share utilities.”

The University of Wollongong’s Innovation Campus is a showcase for commercialising space, according to Rafin. While it hasn’t had to redeploy existing buildings (few, if any, universities have made their classrooms truly multipurpose), it has generated revenue by leasing commercial and corporate work space, research space, event facilities, and even land. This forward thinking approach has helped the university rank in the top 1 percent of universities in the world for research.

Housing students

It’s not just businesses that need a home on campus. Students do, too, and a key element of the urbanised campus is housing. Though the student accommodation sector in Australia is growing, and being driven by major societal trends such as globalisation and housing affordability, the current lack of provision of student accommodation in Australia is giving universities an opportunity to curate true live, work, play environments.

Sydney University has sought to address a chronic undersupply in the city (75,000 beds by 2021, according to the City of Sydney’s Housing Issues paper) with the construction of 656 on-site micro bedrooms (c. 10 square metres) as part of the Regiment mixed-use redevelopment project at its Camperdown campus.

The smaller size of the rooms will be offset by expanded communal facilities.

Monash University’s 150-room residential project at its Peninsula campus speaks to the environmentally conscious with carbon-reduction features such as cross laminated timber, a solar roof and rain water harvesting.

With many students currently living in cramped conditions, the campus should aim to be their ‘living room’, a place for people to study and play, says Sydney University’s Searle.

“The number of campuses that provide the opportunity for chance encounters and social interactions are inadequate, yet this could have big impact a university’s image. And with growing competition from overseas, image is everything.”

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