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Contemplating the future of the physical campus

What will universities be like in 25 years' time? Will technology reduce the need to be on campus?

Posted by Hannah Vickers | July 14, 2017 | People, policy, politics, money

By Alex Solk, Partner at Sheppard Robson 

Last month’s annual AUDE (Association of University Directors of Estates) conference had a distinctly reflective mood. The event marked the 25th year of the organisation, a milestone that led to many projections about the future of the campus and deliberations about how digital and physical worlds would collide. We captured these reflections in a piece of research that looked into what estates directors thought the campus would look like in five and 25 years’ time. 

Projections can often be dramatic, attention-grabbing leaps, with a distinctly possible outcome, I proffered, being the extinction of the physical campus as we know it. Learning and teaching would all be done digitally, with physical estates being little more than an administrative hub, or exist solely for research purposes. However, we found people’s opinions to be less ‘Blade Runner’ and more about iterations of existing educational models. 

Technology is going to shape rather than replace the physical campus

First up, we asked the fundamental question: Will we need campuses in 50 years’ time? The majority of respondents answered with a definite “yes”, stating that technology is going to shape rather than replace the physical campus. The reasons for this revolved around the respondent’s belief in physical interaction and ‘face time’ being an essential ingredient to the education and research experience. This supports the idea of learning being social, rather than being purely transactional. 

Perhaps more surprising than the resilience and survival of the physical campus is that the majority of respondents thought that the trend to provide more student social space will continue for the foreseeable future. The proliferation of social interaction buildings - whether they be ‘hubs’,  ‘exchanges’ or ‘forums’ - on campus has been extensive over recent years, and it would be understandable to think that the capacity requirements for this space have been met. However, respondents envisage the future requirements for informal and flexible learning environments to continue to grow. 

Putting these two responses together gives a clear picture that continued investment in non-specialist spaces for social interaction will keep future campuses alive. The respondents who thought the campus would survive by focusing on specialist facilities for tasks that can’t be done remotely, like science laboratories, were in the minority. Many more subscribed to using the physical estate as a magnet, investing in the social ‘glue’ that encourages interaction, chance encounters and a richer more discursive method of learning.

“It is clear that the university has no future” were the words of a respected academic writing recently in a journal about the rise of technology. This view draws on how subjects could be taught remotely but, in my view, is underselling the social dimension that is clearly vital to the student experience, with this importance reflected in the marketplace. If the collaborative campus experience was optional instead of being essential to a university’s educational offer, wouldn’t the Open University model dominate the marketplace?

The debate about campuses will continue to revolve around the meeting of digital and physical worlds to meet students’ shifting expectations 

The debate about campuses will continue to revolve around the meeting of digital and physical worlds to meet students’ shifting expectations. The digital and the physical should not always be seen to be in opposition to one another; instead, the role of estate directors will be to create a mutually supportive relationship between them.  The goal of striking this balance will not be merely convenience or efficiency, but rather a humanness that pervades the design of our campuses. 

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