More investment and imagination is required to upgrade educational estates in a way that will attract students and enhance their experience against a trend of remote learning, a Place North West event heard.
Education Property Update provided an overview of education projects across the region and sought to examine how facilities can be integrated into the wider community and provide more appealing, adaptable spaces in the long term.
The event was hosted by Place North West editor Sarah Townsend and sponsored by Savills and RoC Consulting.
It was the latest event under Place North West’s new conference format using the Remo platform that enables networking on digital ‘tables’, as well as many other features.
Presentation – Education meets regeneration at Eden Project North
David Harland, chief executive of Eden Project International, gave a presentation in which he said proposals for the £85m Eden North project in Morecambe aim to educate people about the world’s ecosystems.
“We want to remind people that we are part of the natural world, not apart from it. We only get one ecosystem and we ought to look after it.”
Eden Project North, the region’s version of the 20-year-old Eden Project leisure and education attraction in Cornwall, is expected to draw close to one million visitors a year and is being developed in collaboration with Lancaster University.
Eden Project International has also agreed a 25-year partnership with Lancaster & Morecambe College and aims to create more links with some of the 472 schools within 25 miles of Eden Project North.
Harland said the Morecambe project was the company’s “number one priority” at present and would act not only as an educational attraction, but a catalyst for the regeneration of the Lancashire town, transforming it from an ageing seaside resort. “We were sceptical at first [about the location], but realised there was huge potential,” he said.
Morecambe has struggled since the advent of cheap air travel, making holidays abroad more accessible and causing it to lose its appeal, Harland explained.
“[The project] is about regenerating Morecambe and trying to bring back hope into the area,” he said.
Panel 1– The importance of partnerships in delivering educational property
David Harland, chief executive, Eden Project International
Victoria Shepherd, bid manager and education sector lead, Willmott Dixon
Jeremy Hinds, director, Savills
Natalia Maximova, associate partner, Sheppard Robson
To start the panel discussion, Jeremy Hinds said Eden Project North is a good example of how to enable communities to come together. “This sort of advanced regeneration in Morecambe is very much needed in a community that has been left behind for far too long,” he said.
Hinds then noted differences between the state and private school sector, which cause disparities in the quality of educational space on offer. At sometimes as much as £4,000 a term, independent schools receive three times the funding of state schools, which typically receive that over the course of an entire year, he said.
“More needs to be invested [in the state sector]. We, as a nation, need to [shore] up that gap.”
Another advantage of independent schools is the freedom to adapt and develop their estates, which makes them more flexible compared to state schools that have to go through local government approvals, Hinds added.
David Harland said that collaboration between education providers and organisations such as Eden Project International is important, and that the company’s partnership with Lancaster University represents “a coming together of a shared vision, with everyone pulling together in the same direction to do good”.
On the issue of sustainability, Harland said it was not enough to look only at the development itself. “The question of sustainability goes beyond that. We are thinking about transport improvements [in Morecambe]. It is no longer good enough to do ‘no harm’, you have to ‘do good’.”
“I think Covid might have shown us is that we are all interconnected and that we can demand the societies and communities we want coming out of this if we stand together,” he added.
Victoria Shepherd gave an overview of Willmott Dixon’s current projects within the education sector, which include creating a £100m media and creative studies campus for Manchester College at the former Boddington’s brewery site on Great Ducie Street.
Covid-19 has not had an impact on the contractor’s education project pipeline, she added. On the contrary, Willmott Dixon has seenan increase in secondary school tenders coming forward in the last three to six months.
Natalia Maximova said Sheppard Robson is exploring the possibility of adapting completed projects to adhere to changing demands brought about by Covid-19, and added that the pandemic could prompt a keener focus on the issue of wellbeing.
“Everything we design should contribute to strong mental health and wellbeing. Green spaces are an important part of that,” she said.
A partnership between developer Bruntwood and the University of Birmingham to create a research centre the two organisations could use jointly could act as a precedent for future development of educational facilities, Maximova added. “It is a great example of how education and the property industry could meet,” she said.
Presentation – Campuses of the future
David Judge, group creative director at Space Zero, a company that designs workspaces for education providers, said more importance needs to be placed on creating “communicative” and “experiential” spaces in which students feel like they belong, rather than mere functional ones.
“Obsessive focus on detail is required. Space has a purpose, and it can be a powerful communication tool,” he said.
Now more than ever, institutions “embroiled in an intake battle” as the market becomes increasingly competitive, need to create campuses that are a preferable option to being at home and can attract learners, Judge added.
“The campus ‘experience’ is instrumental to the survival of institutions. To protect them you have to redesign and improve them,” Judge said.
The campuses of the future should be centred on the needs of the user, making them feel like they belong, as well as taking inspiration on branding and USP from the success of other sectors like retail and leisure.
Finally, Judge said campuses must be able to respond to a rapidly evolving world, encouraging a “radical rethink” of estate strategy away from expansion and towards refurbishment, which represents a low cost, high-yield investment.
Panel two – Remodel and integrate
David Judge, group creative director, Space Zero
Rob Jones, commercial manager, Crossfield Group
Sue Emms, principal, architecture, BDP
David Judge said some universities find it difficult to create spaces that go beyond the practical requirements of students. But they should think more about creating places students love to visit rather than simply providing the necessities.
“I am not saying that all universities should be designed like Wagamama and we should spoil the students. There is something in between and I don’t think it gets considered enough,” he said.
Rob Jones said collaborative educational partnership between developers and institutions can provide opportunities for students to look at careers in the development industry.
“We educate the educators because these guys don’t know about what we do. We have opened a door to their students to realise that there are opportunities [like working for us] on offer,” he said.
Jones added that there is value in coming back to assess projects 12 months after completion to see how successful they have been, and learning from that. The key to creating a scheme that works is striking a balance between what the client asks for and what stakeholders want and need.
Creating multipurpose facilities that work for education providers and the community could provide a more holistic solution to educational development, Jones added.
An example of such a project is a college that Crossfield delivered for Sefton Council in collaboration with Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, which doubles up as a mental health services hub.
“It provides a soft, cool environment and outdoor space for residents living in a less affluent area, combining education and health,” Jones said.
Sue Emms agreed that more consideration needs to be given to creating collaborative, flexible mixed-use spaces.
“Our siloed approach to delivering education facilities has to be challenged and we should be seeing fully integrated community spaces with outdoor and internal spaces that can be used by anybody at any point of the year,” she said.
Emms also echoed Judge’s calls for campuses to be redesigned to attract students amid changing demand and suggested that potential changes in the way universities operate need to be considered.
Three-year courses and semesters could disappear and be replaced by an “on-demand education” model, she said.
“That could affect estates massively, especially in terms of student accommodation. This year, the focus has been on filling beds to get the money.
“But [in future] there is going to be a move towards providing a hotel version of student accommodation, which is higher quality, more agile and more flexible.”