As universities evolve strategies for reopening amidst the pandemic, many are also faced with major financial and logistical challenges. The combined impact of the loss of international students, financial strains that predate Covid, and the millions in losses caused by shutting down in-person classes leave many institutions in a serious bind. The space needs of universities are also changing rapidly, with the evolution of teaching models, the need for socially distanced learning environments and hybrid classrooms that support online and in-person learning. Given this context, there is a compelling need for universities to take a deeper look at their real estate assets and be creative with how they leverage their campus.
Real estate can be a valuable and untapped tool for universities seeking flexibility and additional resources to support their academic mission and financial stability. There are three key strategies which can support universities in this effort—scenario planning, partnerships, and creating flexible campus environments and spaces.
1. Scenario Planning
Scenario planning is a strategic planning method that universities can use to create flexible long-term campus plans, which can be particularly valuable in this era of uncertainty. Rather than creating a prescriptive master plan that lays out a single vision for the distant future, scenario planning helps institutions to envision multiple scenarios, each of which triggers a different planning approach. This ensures that the campus plan evolves with the changing landscape, and enables a more creative, flexible use of available space.
Each plan is unique as each institution is unique, but there are four key steps for institutions to consider as they develop a scenario plan:
- Identify the key space needs drivers, both internal and external. This may encompass factors like enrollment trends, technology, areas of academic and research emphasis, evolving teaching models and student life and support facility needs. It is also important at this stage to start with the institution’s academic mission and vision, and consider how real estate can support this.
- Assess existing facilities. This step involves understanding how space is currently being utilized and the condition of existing facilities. The challenge of addressing deferred maintenance may loom large on the horizon for many universities, though careful consideration should also be given to how facilities in need of renovation can be modified and used to accommodate pandemic related space needs in the immediate term.
- Explore plausible scenarios. Universities should map out how programs, enrollment levels, and delivery models may evolve and change over the planning horizon, and use these projections to create a range of plausible scenarios. For instance, a university may anticipate steady on-campus enrollment growth, but should also consider the possibility that enrollment levels plateau or decline.
- Provide a range of near and long-term recommendations. The last step is developing multiple or alternative near and long-term recommendations based upon the scenarios. This allows an institution to pivot to the recommendation that most closely reflects the scenario that plays out. For instance, if on-campus enrollment grows, then the university can adopt the recommendation that helps meet growing academic and student life space needs on campus. If the growth takes place in the online cohort, then the university can adopt the recommendation that enables a smaller real estate footprint, or reinvestment in technology within facilities, if hybrid learning models evolve.
Institutions can create more flexibility by partnering with other academic institutions, businesses, developers and allied organizations, utilizing their real estate to further their academic priorities. This approach can include:
- Raising capital. Universities frequently have valuable real estate which is often unused, including parking lots and ageing or vacant buildings which they can’t afford to renovate. This real estate can be leased or sold to developers to raise capital that can sustain and enhance the institution’s strategic and academic mission.
- Campus expansion. Universities frequently have facility needs that cannot be met through the traditional capital budgeting process. By partnering with developers through joint ventures or other arrangements, universities can still realize important projects like town/gown commercial districts, research parks, student housing, recreation amenities or other facilities. Some universities, like UC Davis Sacramento, have gone further by seeking out developers to finance, develop, own and manage significant parts of a new campus.
- Partner with mission-aligned organizations. Universities can also raise capital and further their academic priorities by partnering with mission-aligned organizations, such as industry partners. For instance, co-locating with and renting campus space to companies allied with an academic research program or incubator space could bring financial benefits to the university while strengthening its research capabilities or commercialization efforts.
3. Create Flexibility in Existing Campus and Facilities
The pandemic demonstrates the importance of flexibility, as universities scramble to repurpose athletic facilities, outdoor space and other unconventional settings for socially distanced learning, dining or other functions. As part of a more long-term strategy to enhance adaptability and resilience, universities should consider flexibility as a central premise for the design of their campuses and spaces. But in the more immediate term, there are a number of strategies which can enhance flexibility within existing spaces to promote social distancing.
A fair degree of flexibility has been built into classrooms over the last decade, and this can be leveraged to make learning environments safer. For example, movable partitions in seminar rooms can be used to create smaller hybrid classes, and reconfigurable furniture can be spaced out to support social distancing. Similarly, shared common areas can be repurposed and zoned for lower density, serving as secondary spaces for learning, with the existing technology potentially used for virtual learners in a hybrid classroom. With an increase in remote work, some institutions may even rethink the design of staff space, adopting hoteling or shared hub strategies that provide the same choices offered in classroom environments and third spaces to faculty.
Technology is another enabler which may create new flexibility within existing spaces. With classroom technology becoming increasingly mobile, a number of areas, such as outdoor open spaces, building terraces and indoor atriums with good ventilation can potentially be used as temporary classrooms. Some universities are also deploying mobile hotspots to students in remote locations and boosting parking lot wifi to facilitate online learning.
While the immediate challenges of the pandemic will eventually recede, universities will need to continue to adapt and evolve in response to changing teaching models, enrollment trends and financial dynamics. Scenario planning, partnerships and designing for flexibility will be important tools for universities as they undertake this vital work.
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