The NLA’s recent conference (London’s Education Estate) emphasised both the role and reponsibilities that universities have in regeneration processes in London, especially in deprived areas, and their increasing integration into a continuum of educational facilities and opportunities alongside schools, FE colleges and other institutions, rather than existing at several removes in a world of stand-alone HEIs.
However, universities will have to move fast to have any chance of acquiring the extra space they need to enhance their capacity. Savills’ Matt Oakley pointed to a 199% increase in universities leasing office space, but warned that they are ‘competing head-to-head’ with office tenants in an open market. Since rents will increase by 5% per anum over the next 5 years, and leases are long, the risks are also high. And they’re also competing with residential clients and many new non-London and foreign ‘education brands’ which are attracted to London by its perceived safety, its welcoming multiculturalism, and the opportunities for part-time jobs. Such incomers are fast absorbing any excess space.
So what are the spatial options for London’s universities wanting to play their part in the city’s economic growth and stay competitive? Virtual expansion is only part of the answer – completion rates on MOOCS stand typically at only 5-10%, but rise to 30%-100% when physical learning hubs are provided. As Andrew Grainger, Director of UCL Estates pointed out, universities do have a significant advantage as blue-chip organisations in the search for space, which is access to ‘very attractive’, blended funding sources. And both UCL and Kings College, represented by Ian Caldwell (Director of Space Management and Facilities Advisor), are securing significant stakes in London’s hotly contested property market, both looking eastwards – UCL to Stratford, KCL to Canada Water. KCL has an aspiration to grow by 3,000 students in the next 5 years, to match UCL – but in both scenarios, the institutions are also playing the role of ‘anchor tenants’ in local regeneration.
Grainger described the LLDC and LB Newham as ‘both very benign in wanting to support university development’ in Stratford, and the site in the south of the Olympic Park as potentially ‘a fantastic educational hub’ with informal facilities on campus designed to create a sense of community. He said the initiative would contribute to ‘breaking down the barriers of Bloomsbury’. KCL surprised the local planning authority (Southwark) by rejecting the idea of a ‘gated community’ on the site, and embracing integration into the urban grain, while also supporting local schools. However, they had been disappointed by the LA’s lack of reciprocal support for staff residential housing on site, a resource in scarce supply, and insistence that provision should go to an RSL. The local community, for its part, had welcomed the idea of an influx of young people generating a daytime economy in the area; and not one objection to the proposal for 770 new student residential units had been received.
Oakley identified the ‘obvious sites’ for university expansion as Euston, Stratford and the Royals, and Vauxhall – the latter his ‘top pick’ for university take-up (at least in the rental market). He also urged estates managers to think about excess government space as occupation is halved over the coming years, and joint ventures with global investors on infrastructure projects. But Rachel Shaw (ArchitecturePLB) stressed that universities – wherever they are – need to ‘blur the campus boundaries’ and ‘invite the public in’, by creating newly versatile, adaptable and shared spaces, supported by collaborations with employers and other stakeholders, and links with schools that help them to prepare the next generations to be ‘lifelong learners’ – not just for the workplace. As Mairi Johnson (Aecom) neatly summarised, it’s all about ‘relationship design’, not just property.
‘London’s education estate – schools, college and universities in the capital’ was organised by NLA, London’s Centre for the Built Environment, at the Building Centre, London, on October 10th 2014. It was sponsored by ArchitecturePLB.