Green shoots? University work ‘on the rise’
Practices are reporting a resurgence of work in the higher education sector as universities face competition for students
In recent months, firms have seen a growing number of tender notices and resurrection of long-running schemes, many of which stalled amid the uproar over tuition fee hikes.
Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios said: ‘Universities had been in a state of shock with higher fees and the recession. Some just pulled the plug on projects.
‘Now universities, especially those in the Russell Group, have regrouped, rethought realised that fees aren’t going to make much difference and are getting going again.’
Clegg said higher education clients were increasingly looking at refurbishment projects and their estates in-depth.
Roger Hawkins of Hawkins\Brown said: ‘We have seen more OJEU and framework notices coming through. In the past year, we’ve picked up projects in the sector, but about three or four years ago there was nervousness in the sector about how student fees would affect numbers.
‘But student numbers are holding up and they have got money to spend. They don’t necessarily want bespoke buildings to fit specific courses, it’s about getting central student facilities built, like unions, to attract students and parents.’
Hawkins confirmed that the practice, which has just broken ground on a new student centre for London South Bank University (pictured), was now recruiting ‘partly on the back of its higher education work’.
Carol Lelliott, a partner at Nicholas Hare Architects said: ‘I don’t believe that the increase in student fees will feed through in a simplistic way to new buildings as this money will be needed simply to make up the shortfall left by other cuts to university budgets.
‘It does however create a demand for better accommodation as students as consumers are increasingly discerning about what they want to study and where. The Universities are acutely aware of this and new building types such as Student Services Centres – of which our building at the University of Southampton was a prototype – are symptomatic of this need to cultivate a student friendly ethos as well as a good academic environment.’
Luke Schuberth, studio director at Aukett Fitzroy Robinson, which has been working on schemes for Imperial College London, said: ‘British universities are having to become more competitive and attractive to candidates on a European and global stage. State-of-the-art facilities and infrastructure play a key part in this and investment does appear to be rising. We’ve had a number of enquiries in this sector, which is encouraging.’
Mark Gabbey, associate director, GHM Rock Townsend, said: ‘The current challenge for Universities is getting the balance right between the demands of limited budgets on ‘fixing’ the place, and making the place ‘feel right’.
A large amount of University infrastructure and building fabric is old, unsuitable, or obsolete, and has absorbed annual maintenance budgets over time without showing much return. This needs to be considered for fixing rather than mending when capital projects are undertaken however without compromising the more aspirational and ‘front of house’ aspects of improving the experience and providing innovative future-proofed flexible spaces for the new and more demanding ‘customers’. Often the fixes involve improvements to energy efficiency, CO2 reduction, and effective use of scarce resources to improve sustainability, so in this respect there is a ‘big’ story for Universities, albeit the evidence is not immediately apparent.’
It is the need to compete and to attract students, which are the life blood to all universities
Matt Cartwright, director of RMJM’s London studio said: ‘It is clear from our experience that confidence is returning to the sector, all be it cautious and at a slower pace. Our university clients continue to assess, refine and look to enhance their estates with the commencement of a range of project typologies. It is the need to compete and to attract students, which are the life blood to all universities. This is done through a multitude of ways but core is the facilities and the environment students are attracted to and choose to study and live in.
‘The challenge for universities will always be how to fund these projects and some will have the ability to do so more than others.’