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The Importance of Space Utilisation in Higher Education: An Overview

Introduction - Why is Higher Education Space Still in Demand

You would have thought that the Covid pandemic and the rise of remote learning would have relieved the pressure on space in higher education. But it seems the opposite is true. Many universities are still clamouring for more student facing space, often driven by a need for teaching space to enable an increase in the curriculum. However, the events of recent years have given rise to a new need. With many students able to learn remotely for some, or all, of their curriculum there is a real danger of eroding the student experience. We need to avoid the students (and staff for that matter) being too isolated and foster a positive sense of community, and a memorable student experience. This has given rise for an increased demand for high quality student community space and student support space and conversely a reduced need to back of house support space.

New vs Old - Maximising Higher Education Space Utilisation

Do you need expensive new buildings? Granted they can be modern, inviting, purpose built and focussed on creating the spaces and culture we want but it is an expensive undertaking and significant investment, especially given future uncertainty due to Covid and the economy. An increase in interest rates has also raised the cost of borrowing changing to return on investment dynamics and making many schemes now unviable.

So, what about improving the use of existing space and investing any money in repurposing and upgrading those facilities? Not only does it present significant costs savings minimising the need for borrowing but it can also reduce the carbon footprint of new development. In fact, a recent study showed building and construction are responsible for 39 per cent of all carbon emissions in the world, with operational emissions (from energy used to heat, cool and light buildings) accounting for 28 per cent – improving both utilisation and energy efficiency of your existing buildings is not only cheaper but better for the planet!

The Causes of Poor Space Utilisation in Higher Education

Many of our clients in the higher education sector are finding that their current space is very underutilised.  Recently conducted utilisation studies across the HE sector confirm that not only does utilisation continue to be an ongoing issue, but that it is one that has worsened in recent times.

Our experience and the data from our surveys show us that underutilisation is being driven by a number of key factors:

    • The rise of remote learning – the obvious one. The issue here is twofold; not just the uplift in formalised remote learning but also, more importantly, the ability to view and access lecture recordings and notes remotely which is lowering physical attendance and providing a flexibility for students that impacts space utilisation levels

    • Inefficient space allocation – a disparity between planned cohort sizes, actual attendance and the size of space booked.

    • Ineffective timetabling practice, not just in class size vs. space booked but also, and potentially more worryingly, booked spaces not being used at all. In some cases, we saw booked teaching spaces only used 30 to 40% of the time they were actually booked.  It should be noted that this varied significantly by faculty.

    • Significantly underutilised business / professional service space. This was true pre pandemic, but the rise of hybrid working has led to a significant decrease in desk usage. A reengineering of this space will not only make it function much better for the staff but also free up space to be re-purposed for teaching or student support / community space.

How to solve underutilisation of space

We have helped many clients with making their space much more effective and efficient as well as ensuring it supports their stakeholders better. Whilst the process that we undertake is adjusted to suit each university / client on an individual basis, the standard structure, and one that we would recommend you adopt, is as follows:

    • Gather your data

This is vital and not only gives you the data to determine where space can be freed up, but how much space is needed going forward. It also provides a great tool for persuading any detractors that space use really is as low as you say it is. Measure your space utilisation across the campus as a whole – not just teaching space, get your timetabling data and any other entry and exit data.

As well as gathering your quantitative date, you also should speak to your people to ascertain their issues and needs. Running workshops or a staff survey can often identify particular issues or even solutions. It is a useful lens for interpreting your data and understanding the story behind it.

As ever, it is access to both quantitative and qualitative data that will provide the most comprehensive results.

    • Identify your issues

Once the data is collated – and only at this point – then the right questions can be asked, and answered.

Why is your space use low? Is it a general issue or particular faculties, schools or courses, or particular buildings or individual spaces? Is it a timetabling issue?

    • Determine your space needs and opportunities

With the data to hand and the relevant questions asked and answered, you should be able to start looking at the needs of your stakeholders and organisation. How much space do you really need, how many of each type and what sizes. Can you make your existing space more flexible?

    • Tackle any cultural issues

As mentioned before, bad timetabling practice can have a significant impact on space use. Having a robust data set will allow you to, politely, demonstrate to individual departments where they could improve.

You might also have particular buildings, floors or spaces allocated to specific faculties, schools, departments or teams. A robust set of utilisation data will allow you to highlight those areas with low utilisation and persuade the owner to reduce their space take or be more flexible in its use by others.

    • Free up space for teaching and student use

By re-engineering back of house space so it better supports the activities being performed. At the end of the day, in the new hybrid era what is the office for – sitting at a desk bashing away at a keyboard or engaging with colleagues and the students, collaborating and supporting. Rationalising back of house space will not only make it support staff better but also can free up space for other purposes. A sea of empty desks is not suiting anyone.

To conclude:

Space utilisation, and the discrepancies between what people actually use, what they think they need, and what they actually need is an ongoing issue within the higher eduction sector (as well as many others).

The causes of these issues are numerous – including an often seen desire to build from new instead of retrofitting and repurposing – but they all present an opportunity for those willing to look into this further before proceeding.

From our experience helping clients in higher education to improve the effectiveness and the user experience of their spaces the new hybrid working era is presenting massive opportunities to make better use of space.

Every organisation should look at how they currently use their space, and how this could be optimised. We would be delighted to have a chat and give you some advice – just let us know.

Colin Stuart
Colin Stuart is the founding Director of Baker Stuart and has more than 25 years’ experience in workplace analytics and consultancy. With a passion for creating spaces that work for people but based on evidence not on conjecture, Colin has helped deliver significant cost reductions whilst improving business performance and staff satisfaction.
About Baker Stuart

We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, move management, project management and programme management services. Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.


Offices in London, Manchester,
Edinburgh and Dublin
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