Stepping up

Stepping up

AUDE (the Association of University Directors of Estates) has produced its higher education Estates Management Report (EMR) for the 2018/2019 academic year. Data used is from HESA (the Higher Education Statistics Agency), and while the compilers focus on conclusions to be drawn from that specific period, the editors have  put their findings in the broader context that this dataset will inevitably be seen and studied as the last snapshot of the academic sector before the Covid pandemic.

With justifiable pride, AUDE places the statistical findings against the backdrop of the sector’s resilience and cohesion, noting that despite the once-in-a-century challenges thrown at them by Covid, estates and facilities staff prevented complete campus shutdowns and by doing so ensured continuation of research work that has been vital for supporting the NHS as well as maintaining engagement with local towns and cities. An unprecedented emergency brought an unprecedented collaborative response characterized by new ways of working.

But insight and broad analysis is now even more difficult in a shifting landscape of early-summer predictions about lack of student numbers suddenly changing to a glut of UK applications to institutions after the confused handling of  A-level results by the Government. In a fast-moving environment, taking stock of financial situations, likely estates challenges including maintenance, funding, new capital development and movement to sustainable technology becomes awkward and even risky.

Since the spring lockdown, AUDE has collaborated twice with Universities UK to question AUDE members on how they see the momentous effect of the pandemic on university estates budgets. By July, 65% of respondents said they had halted or cancelled some capital development projects while 54% had stopped some maintenance work if it was not mandatory for regulatory compliance. Even with a best-case-scenario interpretation, the universities questioned expect a reduction of £374m in strategic estates spending.

AUDE members are showing responsiveness in creating and fine-tuning plans to keep campuses secure and introducing practicable day-to-day routines. Challenges to wellbeing are of course widespread in terms of working lives and family stresses; two thirds of respondents to the summer surveys said they have furloughed staff from estates and facilities teams.

Autumn openings under enhanced Covid safety regimes have demanded a new equilibrium after the response to the challenges of the early stages of the pandemic. AUDE now predicts that capital projects will be reviewed; there will be options to stop, change and delay. Cancelling or postponing capital projects may be seen by estates as a way to recover their financial positions.

Survey respondents report having to ‘find from somewhere’ the facilities costs associated with enhanced sanitizing regimes. These are an absolute prerequisite before teaching and, crucially, research can continue. Increased homeworking may not necessarily become the norm; staff may well begin returning to their offices but the status quo around working roles and expectations may shift for good.  Workforces will be expected to be increasingly agile and versatile, with these qualities being scrutinized by senior management. Tech infrastructure, data security and health & safety management will be under a more intense spotlight. Managers will have to learn how to lead diffused teams while ensuring that no matter where they are, colleagues feel equally trusted and valued. AUDE will work with members and senior colleagues to respond to these challenges through working groups and cross-sector collaboration among estates and facilities teams.

But as a point-in-time snapshot prior to Covid, how does the 2018-19 dataset suggest university estates were doing? A previous trend that saw numbers of domestic students dropping to record lows was changing with a greater intake from the country in which the university is based or from other parts of the UK.

Additionally,

  • Capital investment had reached £3.5bn for the first time
  • Despite many pressures, costs were under control
  • Income per square metre was up, particularly in larger institutions.

There were increasing disparities between small teaching-focused institutions and large research-focused organizations. The prognosis was positive with many institutions looking forward to multi-year rolling programmes of capital investment. Success in responding to the demands of climate change and adoption of low-carbon technologies were encouraging.

The AUDE executive management report which we are summarizing in this article allocates institutions to one of four categories as in previous years with categorization being not just by total academic income but also by the percentages of income derived from teaching and research. This segmentation allows individual institutions to benchmark themselves against comparable institutions in other locations.

As in recent years, patterns of capital expenditure were uneven with seven universities spending more than £100m while 80 spent less than £10m. Income growth in the large research institutions was particularly strong at £777m. All four segments (the categorizations according to the research-teaching income split) were grouped together at 75-80% A-B range when scored for estates condition. There is consensus among the analysts of the dataset that this is the highest it is ever likely to get.

Covid has of course introduced volatility and fluctuations in projected student income to the mix which has, in turn, been responsible for caps on student numbers (some of them being subsequently removed on a by-course basis) followed by a projected dip in domestic (UK) students due to the perceived nature of university offerings during a pandemic. Some of these fears have been allayed but the outlook changes constantly. Concern over enrolment from international students and an associated loss of income has produced a period of concerted pressure on estates finances and on the ability of estates teams to second-guess what should be the right course.

Estate teams appear to have been getting it right pre-Covid and AUDE chair Stephen Wells from the University of Surrey took a positive interpretation of the data collected for 2018/19. He said: “With income growing faster than the size of the estate, coupled with relatively static property costs, we see efficiency gains for the overall sector from the data in this year’s executive management report.”

There were gains elsewhere with the AUDE management report including questions on energy costs and the respondents’ answers suggesting that university buildings are becoming increasingly energy-efficient. This is encouraging since they are not only technologically more complex than earlier examples but are also used more densely. All of this reinforces the executive management report’s broad conclusions about a stable and positive estates position with efficiency gains and high-quality service provision.

Jane White, AUDE executive director, said: “We now have an established series of special interest groups working under the AUDE umbrella – on capital, estates management, sustainability, space management, and strategic FM – that help us stay close to the current needs of our universities. Our members’ expertise feeds into our knowledge, and we then share this to the benefit of all.”

AUDE has inevitable concern about estates budgets in the light of income volatility, with maintenance budgets being an easy though unwise cost-cutting target. Many institutions are finely balanced with a remit to balance the management of statutory requirements with efficiently-run services.

There is a consensus within AUDE that the quality of the national university estate is currently at the highest point it has been over the last decade. It’s a given that estates quality is fundamental to sector success being a key component in attracting students and staff as well as delivering excellent teaching and executing effective research programmes. Being a successful and responsible ‘local citizen’ in areas surrounding campuses as well as a national player in times of crisis are all dependant on upkeep and innovation within estates.

Given the crisis that higher education and academic research still face, as well as the sector’s reputation for preparedness for challenges and enthusiasm for developing shared responses, the biggest question of the year might be how to maintain momentum and the ‘never so together’ mindset. The AUDE estates management report remains a bedrock in determining university strategies and its breadth of focus reminds us that, massive as it is, Covid is only one of the challenges to be confronted in a context of the need for carbon efficiency and the general evolution of teaching, learning and research methods.

For more information visit https://www.aude.ac.uk/emr


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