University facilities management’s two new challenges

by FM Media
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ANTHONY PERRAU from the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association and the Queensland University of Technology reveals how a greater focus on research output and the experiential student is impacting university facilities management.

Facilities managers in the higher education sector are grappling with two new challenges: a greater focus on research output and the experiential student. Both are having a significant effect on the way universities view and operate their space.
Now more than ever a university’s grant and discretionary (non-government) funding is linked to its research output. So, whether it is a research-intensive university seeking to protect its ‘market share’, or a university seeking to drastically increase its research output in a short period of time, facilities managers are finding themselves as a key player in the drive to attract and retain high-performing researchers. Researchers are asking how the university’s goals align with theirs and, increasingly, this is coming down to the quality and reliability of the facilities in which they will be working.
In its response to the 2008 Bradley Review into the fitness for purpose of the higher education sector, the Rudd Government lifted the cap on university enrolments and linked funding to the student. Put simply, the more students a university can enrol, the greater its share of federal funding. Students of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – those that had a choice – based their decision on where to attend university primarily on the university’s academic reputation and, secondly, on its location relative to their home.
The resulting competition for the student dollar combined with the rise and rise of consumerism over the last 10 to 15 years has created the experiential student, one who is willing to travel far from home for the right university experience. The experiential student asks themselves more and more ‘what’s in it for me?’ University facilities managers are quickly learning that this boils down to the quality and connectedness of formal and social teaching and learning spaces.

With no increases in university base funding in the foreseeable future, it is becoming difficult to balance these two competing space priorities. In fact university facilities managers are faced with a dual Catch 22 scenario. For those universities seeking to capitalise on or increase their research performance, to attract more grants and private sector funding, they need to be providing world-class space and equipment. For most universities, research funding alone cannot support the capital investment required, so they must increase revenue by other means.
From 2009, the easiest way to do this has been to increase enrolments; however, to do this successfully, universities need more teaching and learning space – space that is modern and relevant to today’s discerning and connected student, which often equates to more expensive space. And so we end up back at the funding problem.
Of course universities can borrow for capital investment or increase student course fees (there are some caveats here), and many have done this to varying degrees. But, generally speaking, most of the borrowing has been to invest in research activities, which can take a long time to produce a return on investment, so universities invariably come back to increasing enrolments or course fees to increase revenue.
So, how does a university with limited funding opportunities attract more Commonwealth funded students or students who are willing to pay higher prices for courses and deliver better quality research facilities? The answer could be to lift space utilisation by working existing space a little harder, while at the same time investing in existing space to ensure it meets the expectations of researchers and students.
But, how do you know whether or not your existing facilities have spare capacity, can meet the demands of modern teaching and learning pedagogies, have the potential to attract and retain students and researchers with a modest capital outlay, or if they are in such a state that any money spent would be throwing good money after bad.

At the Queensland University of Technology, like a number of Australian and New Zealand universities, these decisions are made based on detailed annual space and space planning reports and five-yearly detailed building condition and functionality assessment reports.
Key components of an annual space and strategic space planning report include:

  • insight into whether or not space development – new and existing – is aligned with the strategic plan of the university
  • equivalent full-time student (EFTS) projections and associated impacts on the future demand for space
  • the current quantity, distribution and utilisation of space (teaching, research and office), and
  • the condition and functionality assessment of all space.

Even with solid data to guide decisions such as build new or refurbish, however, the increasing shortfall in university funding will mean that universities will be forced to do more with less. For many universities this will mean achieving much higher space utilisation.
The days of the 8am to 5pm university could be numbered. Universities will need to work their space harder, but at the same time, make and keep their space attractive to the modern student and researcher. Challenging times ahead for university facilities managers!

Anthony Perrau is the vice president of the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association and project director of Queensland University of Technology’s Science and Engineering Centre project.

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