university spaces
16 February, 2024
What do students want from university spaces?
The rise of digitisation, increased conversation around wellbeing and the changes in how we work have all created behavioural changes in work and education. In turn, these changes in how we operate have been informed by, and inform, workspace and education space design and use.  

In universities this shift is increased by a growing move away from a didactic way of teaching as educators realise that not only is higher education a place of learning but university spaces somewhere that prepares students for the working world as well.  

An exciting market that’s further driven by younger universities seeking to compete with the old guard as well as international institutions. More and more are developing their property portfolio to attract students from around the world.  

As a result, university design is changing enormously, creating spaces that support, nurture, and inspire, students.  

Therefore, the question university stakeholders need to ask themselves is not just what students want from their university spaces, but also what do they need? 

The alignment between higher education and the working world  

At Maris we work with universities across the country to transform their property portfolio by developing spaces that consider the student experience during end beyond education, as well as the benefit to the university itself. 

Alex Hunt, Senior Partner and Managing Director at Maris, who heads our educational division, says: “There’s a lot of alignment between the education design and commercial design worlds. One benefit that universities can enjoy is that the commercial world will always be ahead of the education world. Therefore, as a design and build firm that works in both spaces, we can offer great insights into how industries are moving forwards and bring that knowledge to universities when they’re updating their teaching facilities.” 

How does university design impact student learning?  

The way we think about learning in higher education has evolved enormously. But a lot of universities have either developed their property portfolio without strategy, or they remain as they were 20 years ago. Lecture theatres and seminar rooms designed for listening for hours on end are in surplus. 

Now, students are savvier about what they expect from their university education. Universities are also much more aware of the need to vary the educational experience for better outcomes.  

Moreover, students and teachers are increasingly aware of the importance of learning environments that align with real-world professional expectations. 

A well-designed education environment, both within and beyond the classroom itself can be a powerful stimulus for generating curiosity, creativity, and promoting effective learning.  

Crucially however, the design also encourages students to remain on campus beyond class time, fostering relationships that will further their learning. 

This isn’t mere theoretical information either – it’s quantified and qualified based on research as well as experience and anecdotal evidence. For example, the HEAD (Holistic Evidence and Design) study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) into younger students and the impact of environment on learning concluded: “In Phase 1 of the study, classroom parameters were found to explain 25% of the variance in learning progress. In Phase 2 the sample is five times bigger, and the classroom effect has levelled out at 16%, but with much greater certainty.” 

Key factors in the research included: 

  • The Naturalness principle: relating to the environmental parameters required for physical comfort, including light, sound, temperature, air quality and links to nature. 
  • The Individualisation principle: relating to how well the classroom meets the needs of a particular group of people, including ownership, flexibility and connection. 
  • The Stimulation principle: relating to how exciting and vibrant the space is based on complexity and colour. Complexity is defined as how the different elements in the room combine to create a visually coherent and structured vs random and chaotic environment.  

The research was led by the University of Salford, Manchester, where a team led by Peter Barrett, Professor of Management in Property and Construction spent three years collecting pupil data across three local authorities. They highlighted that this empirical evidence was: “the first time that clear evidence of the effect on learning progress of the overall design of the physical learning space has been isolated in real-life situations.”    

university spaces

What types of space do students want from university design?   

Meanwhile, a research paper published in The Journal of Facilities Management entitled Flexible spaces….. What students expect from university facilities notes that amidst an environment where more students are interacting with one another via technology and other behavioural shifts, practical considerations for university design include: 

“The importance of safety, security, natural ventilation, lighting and other physical features as conducive to effective learning. Students in this study also indicated a need for multi?use spaces for intense work and learning opportunities.” 

This is very much aligned with our experiences at Maris, which see the need for a combination of environments that give students safe places in which they can spend time both in and beyond the classroom.    

Why is a new approach to higher education spaces worth investing in?   

There are ethical and commercial reasons for universities to invest in the design and build of their higher education spaces, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

An ethical imperative   

Ethically, universities are the environments that will shape students as they head into the next phase of their lives. It’s a pivotal, transitional period where they gain professional skills as well as personal ones. 

For many students, university is also a safe space – they don’t necessarily have a lot of financial resources for good food and warm places to study. By creating environments they can enjoy, have a good meal and socialise, it helps to foster confidence, independence, relationships, and productive learning experiences to take into the world.  

Realistically, better places in which to work and learn are also more likely to lead to better results, which in turn contributing to the university’s success. 

A commercial necessity  

Commercially, universities are in a position where they’re competing for students both nationally and internationally. Students are looking for spaces where they will enjoy their higher education – not just because of the curriculum but because of the environment and facilities they have access to as well.  

A great example of investment in action is a project we worked on with Buckinghamshire New University, which saw the transformation of their High Wycombe campus. The new student experience has set the university on a new trajectory that will have a positive impact for years to come.  

Alex, who led the project, said: “This is one of the proudest projects of my career. We delivered on our promise, delivering an exceptional environment out of the ground. The result is already game changing for BNU and the individuals within it. If you talk to the students and staff now and they all have smiles on their faces which is wonderful to see.”  

university spaces

Recognising the need to address a national as well as international market, many of the UK’s regional universities are investing in London satellite campuses, knowing that the capital and its suburbs offer more accessible geographical locations for students. 

For example, The University of the West of Scotland located a campus at East India Docks overlooking Canary Wharf, where many aspire to work, knowing that it not only opens a whole new market for them, but it also diversifies the student experience.  

Meanwhile, universities are also investing in world-leading facilities in specialist areas that lead students into specific career paths.  

For example, Teesside University has set up studio spaces that make it a world-leader in training the next generation of gaming experts, while the fashion school at UCA set out to create a teaching facility that prepared students not only to be good at design, but the business skills associated with fashion as well. London South Bank University has also set itself apart, where we created mock hospital wards at their Croydon campus. Here they will train the next generation of NHS staff. It includes maternity wards, a full A&E, 3D immersive suites, simulation suites for paramedicine and more. 

Through this work we have learned that students are serious about their education – not only what they learn but also environments in which they learn, and how they enhance their experience. Investing in this, means investing in student outcomes as well as the future of the university itself. 

Want to set your students and university up for improved and ongoing success? 

Speak to the team at Maris