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27 June 2022

Rethinking space and capacity in Australian higher education facilities

In our latest Insight article, Damien McLynskey, Associate Director – Project Management, Declan Morley, Associate Director - Cost Management and Paul O’Donnell, Senior Project Manager, explore how the pandemic has caused a significant change for the education sector in Australia, particularly with regards to its real estate strategy.

COVID-19 has incited a paradigm shift in the landscape across multiple sectors and education is one such vertical that is rethinking its strategy for the future. The pandemic has posed considerable challenges for higher education in Australia, from ensuring the health and safety of  staff and students, to reimagining the delivery model to account for more flexible teaching that accommodates both in-person and virtual students in learning spaces with appropriate multimedia and technology resources. 

Below we explore some of the key areas where strategies for space and capacity are changing, in part due to how the pandemic has driven the reconsideration of teaching methods, campus experience, student well-being, the approach to international students, space optimisation, smart operations and the innovation economy, in third-level education in Australia. 

Teaching methods, campus experience and student well-being 

The sudden shift to purely online learning proved to be one of the biggest challenges for the academic environment, impacting not just students, but faculty members as well. 

The majority of student feedback is related to missing out on the whole campus experience, as well as the lack of interaction and support, particularly during exam periods and assignments. In fact, recent studies, such as one by South Valley University involving veterinary students from 92 countries, showed that approximately 97% of nearly 1,400 respondents have attributed substandard academic performance to online courses; hence, the overall feedback is in favour of face-to-face learning in a classroom environment. Similarly, other researchers have noted that many teachers are not well equipped to transition into online teaching, simply lacking the experience, or are yet to learn how to use the information technology required to deliver remote lessons. In addition to academic performance, there is also the impact to one’s mental health and emotional well-being. Students spending hours in front of a computer, devoid of any social interaction, parents doubling as teachers while juggling remote work, and teachers experiencing the added pressure to deliver quality learning without any facetime with their classes – all of this makes it easier to understand how ‘online classes can worsen existing mental health problems for individuals who already have them’.  

With these considerations in mind, universities will need to take on board the students’ needs, both educationally and emotionally, in order to move forward and strike a balance between the value of face-to-face, classroom learning, and effective online teaching facilities and environment. 

International student dependency 

Another core challenge facing the higher education sector, one that became more evident during the pandemic, has been the reliance on international student revenues. Pre-pandemic, Australia had the highest ratio of international students per head of population in the world, with over 812,000 international students enrolled in its universities and vocational institutions in 2019. However, the year-on-year January 2022 report by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment noted that the number of international students went down by 21% year-on-year. The significant decrease in enrolments had obvious repercussions to the overall economy, given that the education sector is one of the highest contributors to the country’s GDP, accounting for AU$95 billion in 2020-21. Subsequently, the 2022-23 budget review demonstrates the Government’s continued commitment to a world-class higher education system through increased funding, from $15.3 billion in 2014 to AU$25.3 billion in 2022, and an additional AU$2.2 billion investment that will help progress Australian third-level institutions’ research into new commercial projects.  

The increased funding presents an opportunity for universities to revisit their approach to international students, by putting in place appropriate resources that can accommodate both overseas and local students. Part of the funds may be allocated for creating more integrated spaces with facilities that will allow seamless transitions from in-person to online learning, thus encouraging student enrolments regardless of unprecedented circumstances. Further, the increased investment supports Australian universities to continue their world-class research programs, which should not be dependent on fluctuating student fees. 

Pursuing space optimisation and rationalisation strategies 

A central tenet in many real estate strategies within the sector is to rationalise and reimagine the use of space to ensure it is appropriately optimised and efficient. Given that there are now less people on campus, there has been significant focus on what buildings in the portfolio need to remain open and what can be ‘hibernated’. Key to understating this is mapping occupancy, critical research, equipment, and staff locations across multiple campuses.  

Two major shifts which have been fast-tracked by the pandemic are workplace planning and teaching space.  

While space repurposing is on the agenda, at present, there is a reticence to commit capital expenditure with the current climate. Another aspect of rationalisation is in the resources utilised – increasingly, universities are relying on and deriving value from internal teams, as opposed to engaging external consultants. 

Universities are now developing multifunctional teaching spaces, inclusive of classrooms, lecture rooms and laboratories, that can be shared across the various university faculties. In the past, each course’s faculty had their own independent facilities. However, a major trend is underway to deviate from this ‘silo’ mentality and move towards more open and collaborative teaching methods.  

Another shift in space repurposing and design is the provision for better, state-of-the-art student facilities. Previously, students would likely leave the campus grounds as soon as classes finished, and this practice is now getting reversed, as more students become inclined to use on-site facilities. The enhanced facilities now include dedicated areas for collaboration, as well as quiet pods for personal space, that encourage students to study on campus. This also has the added effect of keeping students on campus longer, fostering collaboration and social interactions among groups, and generally creating an improved and happier study environment. 

The fundamental role of smart operations 

Universities are now challenged to entirely rethink, and in some cases overhaul, their approach to operational management as it becomes increasingly complex, which comes with significant pressures to reduce operational costs. Ultimately, keeping those on campus safe is of the utmost importance.  

The value of big data is fundamental in this regard and integrated technology systems play an integral role in making sure information is analysed in a useful way. Standalone systems for various operational aspects that do not speak to one another will not achieve this – data from different systems must be linked to infer meaningful insights. This is where proper building management systems come into play, with features such as booking systems that give lead indicators, Wi-Fi data that provides lag insights, or a cleaning schedule system, all of which help can reduce the operating costs. 

Some considerations for smart operations include: 

  • People counting systems that can monitor the number of people in classrooms, lecture theatres and other facilities, to ascertain usage trends. This has a number of benefits, including making sure the correct rooms are utilised for their intended purposes and capacities – e.g., if a lecture takes up a 100-person lecture room, where on average it only has an attendance of 25 students, it may be moved to a smaller room, which would lead to operational cost savings.  
  • Precinct HVAC systems – facilitate the development of a precinct heating and cooling strategy, that will allow multiple buildings to be serviced from a centralised plant. This would involve Building Control Systems, where individual rooms such as large lecture theatres can be in ‘sleep mode’ when not occupied. While this will potentially require initial upfront construction and corresponding costs, as well as ongoing maintenance, it also means reduced operational costs, as there will be reduced energy usage, such as air conditioning, lighting and AV systems.  
  • Post-COVID building ventilation systems – the spread of the COVID-19 virus was primarily caused by the transmission of aerosolised droplets from an infected person to a healthy person. To minimise this risk, less recirculated air is necessary; experts say higher fresh-air rates and lower occupancy densities should be considered in future building mechanical design, as well as increasing the number of naturally ventilated spaces. 

Conclusion 

While the Australian higher education sector adapted quickly, as temporary measures were put in place the pandemic took hold, these are not long-term solutions. Ultimately, both real estate strategies and the campus experience are in a state of flux, but space managers continue to push forward with improving operations and ensuring that in the event of another unprecedented occurence, universities:  

  • are well-equipped to deliver seamless transitions between classroom and online learning environments 
  • have access to facilities that can accommodate ‘hybrid’ sessions for those unable to attend in-person sessions, while also maintaining spaces conducive for group interactions and individual learning, and 
  • integrate smart operations and appropriate building management systems to address operational inefficiencies, especially during times of fluctuating usage. 

Linesight has been assisting the construction project management needs of clients in the education sector to ensure enhanced space and capacity strategies. If you have any questions, or if you’d like to share your thoughts/insights about this article, our education experts would be happy to speak with you.  

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