The Dynamic World of Higher Education

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We’ve come to Space Zero’s impressive working home in The Zenith Building, in the heart of Manchester, to discuss the subject of what the corporate sector can learn (and is learning) from higher education – and vice versa. 

It’s some years since Mix Interiors suggested that the commercial workplace sector has plenty to learn from the higher education sector. The contention being that, for some time now, designers of space for higher education have been creating spaces that support, stimulate and stir the desire to learn and collaborate – the very same focus for today’s workplace designers.

The education sector can be praised for its relentless drive to spark innovation, creativity and productivity among its students. This has, of course, long been the case, as educators strive to ensure new generations succeed and supersede those who have gone before them. However, now more than ever – given the often tumultuous political and economic landscape – it is vital that educational facilities can support and allow students to flourish, preparing them for their entrance into the world of work.

Students will be entering a working world that looks vastly different than it did 10 years ago. The battle to attract the best talent, coupled with rising student and parent expectations, has prompted educational establishments reassess their offering which has in turn had a direct effect the whole of the building process and where design takes centre stage.

We have brought together a group of professionals who work at different stages of the higher education processes, from the designers through to the academics themselves, in order to assess the latest in the sector. 

Here is a mere snippet of what proved to be one of our most interesting (and intelligent) discussions to date.




We begin by asking our esteemed guests, considering how far HE establishments have come in the past 20 years, how will they continue to change in the future? What can we expect to see in the next 20 years?

Kay: There will be a lot more specialism, partnerships and technology.

Simon: I agree, technology will be the driver and we’ll definitely see further changes when it comes to tech.

Stephen: As one of the academics around the table, I believe we’re still stuck in the 20th century. I think we need to get into the 21st century. We’re still delivering courses that are steeped in what we were doing 20 years ago. If you go back 20 years, the students were born in the early 1980s – and they had no mobile phones or WiFi. Current students have everything on their laptops and their mobiles – and they expect their universities to be as quick and as current as they are.

Andrew: I instantly go into child mode and start to think about fantasyland because 20 years feels like such a long time away – but it’s probably not! I think universities will continue to contract. They’ll continue to specialise and there will be less and less teaching accommodation or industry accommodation – we’re already getting heavily involved with universities who are starting to do our work for us. So I think, thanks to technology, more of the teaching elements will be done from home and not in teaching spaces. 


Sam: What we’re seeing is far more choice. When we’re currently looking to create facilities – and obviously there are different sectors with different requirements – but the one thing we’re constantly being asked for is choice of spaces. I think that’s only going to continue to grow. There is now a wider acceptance that no single solution will suit everybody and people are looking to offer different types of spaces for both students and for teachers. I’m not saying that the auditorium is dead – but people are now looking at different types of learning spaces. The requirement for auditorium space is certainly less than it has ever been. People want more one-to-one tuition, they want more informal learning – if they want to see a lecture they can now watch it online and then go and speak to the academic. These are some of the things we’re being asked about right now.

Oliver: Picking up on what Sam just said, I think there is a blending of workplace, hospitality and higher education that comes with technology, expectations and marketisation – commercial reality. 

Paul: Universities have had a great 10 years in terms of the stability of the funding model. Going forward, to continue that, I think there’s going to be a drive to create other income sources, echoing the businesses now coming into our universities. Similarly, I think we’ll see more of the universities going into the workplace. For example, where we’re based, out in Media City, the students from Salford University being out there has really lifted the feel of the area. I think we’ll definitely see more of that.



Sue: I agree with a number of the points that have already been picked up. Technology is of course advancing – but I see it very much as an enabler. I think universities are about social interaction – about people getting together, sharing ideas and pursuing and exploring that academic endeavor. Technology might support that – but campuses are still going to exist. In saying that, campuses are going to look very different. In my view, we’re going to get rid of the silos, we’re not going to have departments, instead we’re going to have inter-disciplinary space and flexible space. Those research establishments are going to have more specialist spaces and I also think that academia and industry will be sat side-by-side, sharing these facilities. The more vocational universities could potentially have more applied learning spaces – going back to the point of ‘real life’ working environments, where either students go to work in the city or bringing the city to the universities. I think that integration of university and city – and that mutual dependence – is only going to get stronger. There’s also likely to be more flexibility – different pathways, there are no longer going to be semesters, people might participate in university life for an intensive six weeks a year because they are earning and learning at the same time. So that’s all going to have a huge impact on the spaces needed. 


David (David Judge, Group Creative Director, Space Zero): I’m really from a different sector. I’ve spent the last 25 years involved in retail – and that sector’s also gone through an enormous change. Most will have probably forgotten now, but I remember doing some research for the Head of IT for a major retailer – and this is only 15 years ago. He said that the problem he had was that people kept buying things online and then bringing them back into the shop, saying ‘I don’t want this!’ The people in the shop were saying, ‘It’s got nothing to do with us!’ So we started using the phrase ‘blurring the lines’ – and today we’ve ended up with Amazon! That’s a huge shift. From an educational point of view, we’ve got to move away from didactic teaching – and there’s lots of experimentation around that. I think that, in the university world, the blending of all things is where we’re heading. The idea that students go and get their degree and then go and get a job – that feels as though it’s almost gone as an idea. Around 40-50% of students who turn up at university know which business they’re going to set up when they leave – so they’re there to be an entrepreneur. So the blurring and blending process across the physical and digital will continue – and I think there will still be the campus, but it will start to feel much more like an intrinsic part of the city. Almost like the educational quarter.

Samuel: I suppose I’m a quasi-academic. Some of the burning issues for us are the changing landscape of higher education, the uncertainty around Brexit, international students, diversification of income…but the really interesting thing from our point of view is trying to understand what the students want and need. Innovation is a hard thing to drive, particularly from a hard estates standpoint. We very much need to work with the academics to change the way things are done. Importantly, we’re currently working on a really interesting project, which is a Student Hub – and this is about consolidating all of our services, so there is an analogy with the banking and retail sectors here. This is all about trying to create a completely different environment, bringing in advisers and offering the students a very commercial experience. I know the majority of today’s panel are concerned with delivering the facilities – but it’s actually more about how the services are delivered around them. Sometimes that can get lost when these landscape architectural projects are delivered. They look great – but they don’t actually function that well!


With this in mind, we ask how long it takes, on average, to ‘stack’ one of these landscape buildings?

Sue: It’s probably a minimum of three and a half years – and that is a challenge. There’s definitely a move towards working in the same way as you would when approaching a speculative office block. I do a lot of university masterplans and, constantly, head of estates are saying, ‘We don’t want you to design that for the business school – we want a flexible building that could be commercial, could be academic…’ We’ll still deliver super specialist spaces when and where they’re required, but there’s little difference between the majority of these spaces and commercial spaces – they could be classrooms, they could be offices, they could be social learning. It’s all about designing in that flexibility. 

Kay: A lot of the work we get involved with is quite specialised in terms of R&D. So these buildings are shared with private partnerships – you might get Unilever taking a floor within the University of Liverpool, for example. They are paying rental to the university and having a major input – but they’re not having the risk of building a new lab. It’s a really good crossover because the post-grad students get hands-on learning with these corporate businesses. It’s a different way of learning and teaching.


Samuel: From our point of view, it’s probably the other side of that. For us, it’s more about degree apprenticeships and vocational studies. We’re moving away from the traditional undergraduate PGT model, where students are taught for eight hours per week, over the course of a week, using the library facilities etc, into a model where degree apprentices are in for a day, for all-day intensive learning. It’s very different because they then take the projects they’re working on in the university back to the businesses they’re working with. That’s impacting on the space they require – it’s very different in terms of a timetabling point of view. It’s quite difficult because you need a certain volume to be able to create bespoke spaces that can then be block booked. It’s taken some time to adjust to this.


Conclusion: There’s little doubt that, in the not so distant future, our universities are going to be even more flexible and adaptable spaces. As Professor Stephen Edge suggests, AI & VR technology will rule, while up-market apprenticeships will increasingly blur the boundaries between industry and academia – the future is looking bright for the higher education sector. The transition from cellular classrooms and ‘traditional’ teaching methods will, of course, take time – but with people such as the members of our panel in charge, the move to more flexible, innovative spaces and practices will continue, while forward-thinking collaborations with businesses will help produce new generations of ‘work ready’ graduates and also healthy revenue streams for the universities.




Sam Bensky, Partner, Rider Levett Bucknall
Sam is jointly responsible for overseeing a 30-strong team in an office nearing almost 100 staff. Since joining in 2006, Sam’s main projects are in the office fit-out and higher education sectors, including the University of Manchester and Staffordshire University. Sam was also part of the team selected to develop a version of their sustainable fit-out assessment tool, Ska, specifically for the HE sector.



Kay Bridges, Senior Interior Designer, Fairhurst Design Group
Interior Design Associate at Fairhursts Design Group, Kay plays a key role in the design and delivery of a wide range of interior/architecture projects. An experienced and innovative designer with over 20 years working in the commercial sector, over the past five years she has specialised in the R&D and higher education sectors and enjoys working closely with the client team to design and deliver environments that everyone can be proud of.



Andrew Bruce,
Manager, Morgan Sindall
Having begun his career in architecture, Andrew joined Morgan Sindall in 2015 and has worked on a number of high profile projects in the North West. He is passionate about creating buildings that inspire and transform, and enjoys the opportunities at pre-construction to work closely with clients, providing support that goes beyond construction. Andrew is a champion of digital construction and lectures at universities in the North West.



Steve Edge, Senior Lecturer Interior Design, University of Gloucestershire    
Steve has been a design academic and practitioner for over 30 years. He divides his time between lecturing and practicing, promoting Biophilic strategies to universities, to help improve health and wellbeing in the interior. His latest commission from Manchester’s AHR architects as Biophilic Design Consultant is to ensure that the new RCP HQ in Liverpool will be the healthiest building in the UK, when it opens in 2020.



Sue Emms, Architect Director, BDP
Sue is a Principal in the Manchester studio of BDP and is the education sector lead in the North. She is responsible for delivering innovative and award winning educational projects. An active champion of good design and a holistic and sustainable approach to building, Sue is also a visiting practice professor at the University of Sheffield. In 2015 she won the Architect of the Year category at the Women in Construction Awards.



Simon Lane, Head of Design Management, Laing O’Rourke
Simon, Head of Design Management at Laing O’Rourke Construction, has functional responsibility for a team of 34 Design Managers. Simon was born in Wythenshawe, Manchester, and has worked in construction since leaving school at the age of 16. An advocate of collaboration and off-site manufacturing, Simon prides himself on his ability to form successful long-term working relationships.



Paul Munro,
Regional Director, ISG
Paul is a Regional Director for ISG, with approaching 30 years of major construction project experience. He joined ISG in 2017 to lead the North West business, which carries out new build, refurbishment and fit-out projects across the region. Recently completed projects include the £13 million refurbishment of Manchester Corn Exchange for hotel operator Roomzzz and the £39 million redevelopment of Liverpool Lime Street. 



Samuel Radziejowski, Assistant Director of Estates, Facilities and Capital Development, MMU
Sam has been focused on managing property assets and developing estate strategy solutions for nearly 12 years and has recently taken responsibility for the estates projects team. His key responsibilities are strategic estates planning, property and asset management, space management and utilisation and estates management information and analytics.