The influence of the HE built environment on student outcomes
“How can we measure the value of the Higher Education built environment in terms of impact on students and student outcomes? What types of campus and what campus facilities deliver the most benefit for our students?”
These are among the questions that will be considered by a major research project launching today and jointly steered by AUDE (the Association of University Directors of Estates), HEDQF (the Higher Education Design Quality Forum) and Willmott Dixon (one of the UK’s leading construction companies and a specialist in higher education building).
Pre-Covid, Universities were spending more than £3.5bn a year on capital developments because of a strong belief in the impact this has on the delivery of high-quality teaching, research and student experience; post Covid future investments will have to deliver even more value. This research will focus on the value to students in particular; measureable value during their studies and after they finish in enabling them to achieve better longer-term outcomes.
“The influence of the HE built environment on student outcomes” is planned as a two to three-year research programme and will publish interim results on its findings during that period. With Covid-19 necessitating a transition to online learning and widespread discussion around future ‘blended learning’ approaches, now is an important time to understand the value of high-quality design, buildings, spaces and technologies to successful student outcomes. The research will also support future estates strategies responding to new ways of teaching and learning.
The phrase “student outcomes” is itself a multi-faceted one and will be examined by the programme steering panel in the early days of the project, in the context of work on the built environment. While it is widely considered that a modern, relevant HE built environment leads to better student outcomes (including but not limited to academic achievement, higher levels of student retention, enhanced graduate employability, improved health and wellbeing, and an enriched and inclusive student experience), there is no cohesive body of evidence to demonstrate the link. The research programme will look at a number of HE built environment capital developments across the UK and examine their impact on student outcomes.
The information and data to be researched is likely to include, for example: the type and intended benefits of capital projects; university data including academic achievement, retention, National Student Survey (NSS) results, graduate employment data, and other qualitative and quantitative data. The research will identify trends linking changes to the HE built environment to changes in the agreed student outcome data measurement sets, and report findings.
The steering panel will be chaired by Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Starr, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Strategy, Planning and Partnerships at the University of London and HEDQF Chair: she will be joined by representatives from across, and outside of, the sector offering multiple frames of reference for this work. The panel has a variety of backgrounds including university strategic planning and estates professionals; academics and researchers; architects and contractors; HE teaching, learning and policy experts; behavioural scientists; and crucially, students will also be represented within this panel.
Speaking about the programme, Dr Alwani-Starr said: “Leaders in the higher education sector continue to place increasing focus on defining, measuring and improving student outcomes. Focus to date has rightly been on the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), but we know that quality of teaching (and research) is heavily influenced by the environment in which it is delivered. The support of both the Office for Students (OfS) and Universities UK (UUK) as well as sector wide bodies such as Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and leading academics, researchers and career specialists, amongst others, for this programme of research reflects the importance of the subject and the understanding that buildings, technologies and services affect students’ education, wellbeing, and future prospects. Whether as a whole sector, or as dedicated estates teams we need to work alongside contractors, engineers and architects to develop a deeper understanding of the impact that our decisions can have and to enable the adoption of options that enable the best student outcomes. Being joined by students as part of our team and our advisory group is critical for the success of this project”.
Stephen Wells, AUDE Chair and Director of Estates, Facilities and Commercial Services at the University of Surrey, said: “It may seem self-evident that investment in the built environment pays off for students. The latest AUDE data (AUDE Estates Management Report – October 2020) suggests that up to 10% of total university income is spent on capital projects that aim at improving the built environment. The best of these new buildings can have a totally transformative effect for universities – enhancing a subject-area specialisation, for instance, supporting the university in attracting new academic expertise, or positioning the university in a fresh way within the international education marketplace. But is there a similarly transformative impact on students? With no research base to tell us so, it’s time to challenge that assumption. This research aims at aligning estates and construction professionals with the matching desire from our students for great study environments.”
Richard James, Willmott Dixon’s sector manager for Higher and Further Education, explained the company’s role in initiating the research: “Willmott Dixon works extensively in the higher education sector across England and Wales – in the past 6 years we’ve delivered over £1bn of transformational construction projects for our university customers. We see the benefits these buildings bring to students and staff every day, however there is no cohesive body of evidence to link universities’ substantial investments into their estates to improved student outcomes. Discussions with colleagues across the sector indicated there was real interest in exploring this further, and the research project was born! As a business partner to AUDE and a founder member of the HEDQF, I’m delighted that both organisations are partnering with Willmott Dixon to deliver the research project. With the guidance of an exceptional advisory panel, I’m convinced that the research will support a key higher education objective of continuing to improve student outcomes and inform future progressive estates strategies.”