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The sustainability of university estates goes beyond the ‘green’ agenda

by Emily Owen | Feb 14, 2023 | People & Culture

The university estate forms a pinnacle part of a university’s brand. From ‘red brick’ to ‘plate glass’, architectural design has long been a way to categorise the identity of UK higher education institutions.

The links between estates and sustainability are well known. Older buildings tend to be less energy-efficient, impacting environmental and financial sustainability, whilst a run-down campus in turn appears less and less attractive to prospects and investors.

But what about the less overt interplays?

Recently, we have seen universities begin to look more deeply and to consider their estates in relation to other aspects of institutional sustainability, particularly their impact on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

Whilst the built environment is a key part of a university’s identity, there are many ways in which it hinders inclusivity too:

    • Buildings can be perceived as white or colonial spaces, which can hinder diverse recruitment.
    • Buildings can be perceived as middle-class spaces, different to the previous educational environments of many.
    • Accommodation blocks with rents outpacing inflation may price out students who are less economically privileged.
    • Buildings constructed in the mid-twentieth century or earlier do not always lend themselves to accessibility modifications.

EDI strategies tend to be short-term, appropriate in a space that depends so much on changing social and demographic contexts. Perhaps now is the time to put greater focus on the intersection of EDI and estates strategies – those that are longer-term and ensure the sustainability of diverse recruitment too.

Student experience, recruitment diversity and estates have recently been associated in a more tangible way. The introduction of ‘warm banks’ at some institutions shows that universities are thinking about the uses of their buildings in ways they may never have before. With hybrid working styles remaining popular and on-campus student engagement still not having returned to pre-pandemic levels, we must also consider some of the redundancies of the built environment.

With the redundancy of spaces being in the higher education consciousness in new and emerging ways, universities now have a unique opportunity to reconsider the ‘look and feel’ of their buildings. This is not exclusive to higher education alone, with the private sector bearing examples of meditation spaces, contemplation zones, and technology-free areas. Even small changes, such as dedicated spaces for breastfeeding or breakout needs, go a long way in making an environment more inclusive.

Just a few weeks ago we saw the introduction of a new Standardised Carbon Emissions Framework as a more accurate way for universities to measure their environmental impact. We are optimistic that new ways of measuring sustainability may prompt universities to consider the ‘people impact’ too.

The university estate is an asset to many institutions. We need to ensure that the archetypal buildings of UK universities are representing and serving the students they exist to support. As universities mature in their approach to EDI, we wonder: will 2023 be the year that estates start to take on a more significant role?

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