The higher education estate: delivering effective space use

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Roehampton University
Research into space efficiency in higher education suggests that universities have successfully adapted buildings to accommodate current patterns of working. Sian Kilner, who helped to carry out the research, says space management will become even more vital as cash to invest in redeveloping universities reduces.

The way that space is used in higher education institutions (HEIs) isn’t just a space management issue. Space use is the product of many things: academic practice, student choice, research funding, student and staff expectations, and equipment. Legacy of older buildings – challenges for efficiency

The challenge of supporting change in all these factors and using space efficiently and effectively is made more difficult by the legacy of older buildings.

For instance, inflexibility characterises much of stock built in the 1960s. The report for the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), The Legacy of 1960s University Buildings, highlighted that many of buildings of this era were designed using space norms which simply don’t reflect current patterns of working or course delivery demands.

While commercial operators in leased premises have choices, such as disposal, change of use or relocation, these options are not often available to universities where older buildings are embedded within the campus. Instead, HEIs have to work hard to adapt, refurbish, demolish or replace older buildings to meet the challenges of matching supply and demand and minimising the time lag between rapid changes in need and a comparatively fixed stock of space.

Trends in space use – increasing efficiency

The research led by AUDE for Phase II of Professor Sir Ian Diamond’s work on efficiency, effectiveness and value for money in the higher education sector looked at trends in the way that space is used. The research measured how much and what type of space is provided in terms of the ratios of space[1] per student and staff full time equivalent (FTE).

In spite of the legacy of older buildings, sector-wide trends in space in the ten years leading up to 2012-13 show that the sector has increased its effectiveness and efficiency of space use.

Although the size of the non-residential estate has grown over the past ten years, the expansion in the size of the estate has been outpaced by growth in student and staff numbers, leading to an overall reduction in the space per student by more than 8%. Factors such as investment in improvements in fitness for purpose and effective space management have enabled space to be used more effectively to accommodate the expansion in student numbers.

Differences in types of space

Within the total space envelope, there are variations in the trends between different types of space. The area of support space per student has increased, while core teaching space has declined. This may reflect the expansion of informal social and learning spaces and other facilities combined with increased sharing and improved utilisation of teaching facilities and shifts in delivery models providing more online and independent learning.

Support staff office ratios show a decline in the area per member of staff, but academic office space is relatively unchanged. However, the average space per academic staff full time equivalent is close to the old University Grants Committee space norm for academic staff, and the current ratio may be in part a legacy of the expansion of the sector in the 1960s and 1970s and the difficulties of adapting buildings of that era to meet modern office needs.

Utilisation of teaching space

HEIs also measure the utilisation of teaching space in terms of how often rooms are used and how full they are when they are in use. This helps to give an insight into mismatches in supply and demand and into patterns of use.

Analysis of trends in utilisation show that overall use increased by more than 9% over the past ten years. The frequency rate – how often rooms are used – rose faster than the occupancy rate – how full they are. Frequency of use increased by 9%, whereas occupancy only rose slightly. But occupancy rates are highly dependent on student patterns of attendance, often declining as the term or semester progresses.

Role of space management

How far the progress made over the past 10 years will be sustained will depend in part on continuing to invest in upgrading and replacing buildings to meet changing demand. But in an era of declining availability of capital, the role of space management to deliver efficient and effective use of space will become increasingly important.

Sian Kilner is a director of Kilner Planning, which, along with London Economics, carried out the research for AUDE and its partners, Universities UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the British Universities Finance Directors Group, on the estates workstream as part of the Diamond Review Phase II.

For an introduction to the value and role of the higher education estate and other posts from the workstream see our HE estates index.


[1] Non-residential net internal area

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