The big conversation

AUDE’s third annual Big Conversation event was held on 24 January 2019 at The University of Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall. The point of the Big Conversation is to give AUDE members space to think and discuss some of the big issues facing higher education estates; and to introduce them to new contacts, new approaches and ideas. In focusing the discussion around the themes of university finance and the quality of the university estate, AUDE aimed to get right to the crux of the current debate in estates. In framing the questions for Big Conversation 2019 AUDE opened up the opportunity for 15 speakers from across the sector to respond with a clear Yes or No to the proposition – and most resisted the temptation to sit on the fence.

The morning session looked at money, and asked the question of higher education finance – “Do we have control?”

Ant Bagshaw, Director of the Nous Group, took the role of provocateur for this session, arguing that “If 80% of student loans will never be repaid, how can we imagine we have control of the overall financial structure of our higher education system?

Several speakers highlighted that the financial context we operate in is closely related to the public policy context, characterised often by the word “uncertainty” – a word which hardly seems adequate to the task of describing the underlying reality as waves of vast change line up on every side to unsettle the ship. Speakers were in turn keen for the audience to accept the harsher probabilities – of significantly reduced funding leading to a need for mergers, for instance – and for them to focus on those areas of control they retain, including the enormous importance of “the basics” including good design briefs, flexible planning consents, safety and legal compliance, and operational efficiency.

At a time of great change in 30 years will universities even be needed in the way that we know them today? Will a few of the best remain as temples of research, while degree-level education is provided online and via call centre support? Have we left a “golden era” for university estates, where finance was both relatively affordable and readily available? If so, how does that leave us as we prioritise between maintenance and capital projects, between heritage and new builds, between demolition and re-purposing? Many members of the audience emphasised the sheer variety of situations our universities find themselves in – there’s no one single approach that works in all situations. But there was a real understanding of the need for flexibility and adaptability in our estates management, as we shift our learning spaces to meet student need.

As Richard Dale and Andrew McConnell, Finance Directors of Newcastle and Huddersfield universities respectively, explained, spending on the non-residential estate has gone up by 75% in the last ten years, yet our investment is dwarfed by some international competitors. Round-table discussions raised themes of leadership, and the need for estates teams to make their voices heard as they help Boards take vital strategic decisions; of the importance of place-making, and the social nature of education; and of engagement with academic colleagues, and the realities of pedagogical change driving the nature of the estate.

The afternoon session asked about the state of the estate: “Is this as good as it gets?” The debate ranged between optimistic and pessimistic views. Ann Allen of Glasgow University gave a resounding ‘No!’ to this proposition, listing a range of leadership actions that could fight against pessimism – from better recruitment and a rethink of the skill sets needed to thrive in a modern estates team, to better procurement practices. Others sought to understand more about the political and financial context and the inevitable constraints upon estates teams.

One consistent thread that emerged was the role of the university in civic society, the way our estates interact with their localities, with central, regional and local governments, with staff, with students and parents. If we have faith in our ability to shape and enhance these relationships then why the pessimism? In many of the round-table discussions there was a sense that as a profession much has gone in the right direction. As one audience member said, “We’re so much better at so many things than we used to be, and we ought to register that achievement and be proud of it. Sustainability, accessibility, community engagement, the list is a long one.”

The afternoon session became an opportunity to reflect on the future as a place of opportunity, where change will be a constant – not least as technology drives an ever more digital campus. There was acknowledgement of an increased focus on student need, in terms of accommodation quality, wellbeing services provision, and an ever more international student body. Reality bites, often – in the shape of backlogs, the stresses of the ‘24-hour campus’, and the worsening condition of some of our oldest accommodation. But many will feel that despite these challenging realities, optimism prevailed, the sense of estates directors’ professional agency in meeting these challenges being enough to allow the profession to move ahead with confidence. Key to that confidence is the ability of Estates Directors to act as “the vital disruptor”, the cog in the wheel that refuses to slide slowly around in the same old way.

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Philip Ross, CEO, UnGroup and Cordless Group

Patrick Hackett, Registrar, Secretary, and Chief Operating Officer, The University of Manchester 

Andrew Wilkinson, CEO, Sodexo Schools and Universities

Gary Jebb, Director of Estates, The University of Edinburgh 

Ann Allen MBE, Director of Estates, University of Glasgow

Ant Bagshaw, Director, Nous Group 

Linda Goodacre FRICS, Director of Estates and Facilities, University of Nottingham 

Ralph Luck OBE FRICS, Director of Real Estate, Avison Young

Andrew McConnell OBE, Finance Director, University of Huddersfield 

Julie Charge, Director of Finance, University of Salford 

Smita JamdarPartner and Head of Education, Shakespeare Martineau LLP

Richard DaleExecutive Director of Finance, Newcastle University

David Lott, Deputy Director, Universities Scotland

Paul Goffin, Director of Estates, University of Oxford

Grant Findlay, Business Development Manager, Sir Robert McAlpine

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