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The student hub at Flinders University. Photo: Peter Barnes

The race to renovate and attract foreign investment: Opinion

Universities are increasingly investing in their campuses to attract foreign dollars.

For as long as they have been in existence, universities have been in competition with one another for the best students and faculty.

The earliest universities in the Middle Ages knew the power of a celebrated lecturer in drawing students across Europe. Young institutions, as demonstrated by Leiden University (established 1575), actively sought to distinguish themselves by recruiting renowned foreign scholars through high salaries and low teaching duties.

Fast forward a few hundred years to the 21st century, though, and the pitch of competition has never been so acute. The financial landscape of academia is undergoing transformative changes throughout the world. As direct government funding becomes ever more scarce and tuition fees grow ever more pivotal, universities are competing within an increasingly consumeristic marketplace for money, top-flight academics and – the focus of this article – students. And their battleground is the campus.

There are few tools at a university’s disposal more powerful than the campus when it comes to elevating itself above the crowded field of competitors. In a 2013 survey conducted by the UK Higher

Education Design Quality Forum, over a third of students recorded that, when deciding which universities to study at, they rejected institutions because of the standard of the physical environment.

So how are universities investing in their campuses to capture the hearts and minds of today’s students? This article takes a brief look at three trends.


Australia is at the forefront of the trend for student-centric development. The concept of the ‘hub’ building, a one-stop shop where students can study, meet friends, eat and drink and access administrative support, is exemplified at the University of Adelaide’s Hub Central (2011) and Flinders University’s Student Hub (2016).

The hub typology is the product of the convergence of two of the most prominent themes within the higher education landscape: the shift in learning paradigms, and students’ growing expectations of their campus experience.

By uniting the core principles of the student experience – teaching, learning, social, pastoral – hubs are perceived as a key means of answering market demands. At the University of Adelaide, the student-centricity of its Hub Central was such that its design was shaped by a student consultation process. Over 9000 hours of student involvement went into its creation.

Now, though, the model is being enlarged to the scale of the precinct. In 2017, RMIT completed the New Academic Street, a five-year project to redevelop the lower levels of four existing buildings and create two new infill buildings at its city-centre campus. Existing rooms were reworked for informal student use, a plaza served by a cafe was created, all student services were brought into a single location for the first time, and new internal laneways, mimicking those of Melbourne’s CBD, house retail.

ANU is currently overhauling the tired, 1970s Union Court at the centre of its campus to deliver a student heart (scheduled opening 2019), comprising consolidated student services, residential accommodation, outdoor amphitheatre, performance venues that double as lecture theatres, shops, informal learning spaces and more.

International appeal

Few universities today are not investing in the student experience, but while the attention of most concentrates on the undergraduate experience, some universities are pursuing a more focused route by homing in on two specific student groups: international and postgraduate students.

Tertiary education has always had an ingrained international dimension. As mentioned earlier, since the Middle Ages, scholars have travelled across borders in search of the best education. Today’s squeezed public funding, though, has dramatically vaulted the importance of international students to the global university sector. The higher fees they pay render them a sought-after market group, especially where domestic pools have reached their peak.

The US and UK have for decades been the dominant destinations for foreign students, currently housing approximately 19 and 10 per cent respectively of all globally mobile students, but their traditional market share is in decline. Alongside a growth in intraregional mobility, increasing numbers are opting instead for Canada and Australia. The latter’s total of international students rose by 32 per cent in the decade from 2003 to 2013.

The competition for international students is mounting, and with this is growing investment in physical facilities specifically designed to attract them. The single most prevalent trend is through the provision of purpose-built accommodation. As a whole, today’s students are becoming increasingly selective about where and how they live. Anecdotal evidence suggests, though, that the provision and standard of housing is particularly important in the recruitment of international scholars.

The recognition that the availability of good-quality accommodation can provide the competitive edge in recruitment within this in-demand student market is stoking a capital investment trend. In Stockholm, for example, a city with an acute housing problem, the Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University are jointly developing Campus Albano, a 6.6-hectare university district of which a key component is 1000 student accommodation units. The new residential provision is perceived as a means of addressing the check that Stockholm’s housing shortage has on the institutions’ international appeal.

In the face of this competition, US and UK providers are being compelled to increase and improve their offering. As part of an active strategy to strengthen its overseas populations, in 2016 the University of Edinburgh completed the Holyrood North Residence, a 29,000m2 residential ‘village’ in the city centre. Encompassing some 1200 beds in eight buildings, the complex belongs to a strategic target of the university to expand its access to residential accommodation for international postgraduates.

On a smaller scale, in 2011 Oregon State University (OSU) opened its International Living-Learning Center, a mixed-used facility containing approximately 350 beds, plus academic, dining and office space. Upon opening, it was by far the university’s most expensive residential hall, thanks to its greater privacy and higher-quality finishes designed to meet the expectations of the international market. Nonetheless, the leap in overseas enrolment numbers from 1548 in 2010 to 2362 in 2012 suggests that it assisted OSU in meeting its targets to grow its international contingent.

The centre was delivered in conjunction with INTO University Partnerships, a commercial provider that specialises in joint ventures with tertiary education institutions to operate international study centres and residential accommodation in the UK and US. Private-sector housing operators have found themselves with a commercial advantage in this sub-sector. In Australia, international students make up approximately 55 per cent of the residents of privately managed student residences. One explanation is that, often unable to view property in person, they pick accommodation online based on the brand of well-known providers and the facilities they offer. Accordingly, many commercial providers actively attune their offer to appeal to international students. With such private, typically high-end halls, however, comes a danger of segregation: expensive accommodation risks out-pricing domestic students and ghettoising international students.

Postgraduate only

As Edinburgh’s Holyrood North Residence indicates, it’s not only international recruits that institutions are seeking to attract through new accommodation, they’re also looking to distinguish themselves within the postgraduate market.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) opened a 1700-bed postgraduate-only complex, UTown Residence, in 2011. While dedicated student residences have not historically been part of the culture of Singaporean universities, NUS’s aspiration to position itself as a world-leading education destination led to the opening of a dedicated residential complex, University Town, adjacent to its main campus. UTown Residence provides housing for single and married postgraduates in either four-bedroom suites or apartments respectively.

For the University of Cambridge, plans for 2000 postgraduate units on its new North West Cambridge site – a $1.8 billion, 150-hectare expansion on greenfield land northwest of the city centre – reflect an institutional gambit to expand postgraduate student numbers to alleviate its financial outlook in the wake of uncertainty surrounding tertiary education policy and Brexit. North West Cambridge’s first quota of postgraduate housing, Swirles Court, opened in 2017, with 325 ensuite bedrooms arranged around three open-sided courts.

New postgraduate offerings are not restricted to housing alone. There is a nascent but significant trend to invest in standalone social learning facilities catering solely to the postgraduate body. In 2015, Queen’s University Belfast unveiled the Lynn Building, a neo-Gothic former library built in 1868 transformed into a postgraduate school. The project belongs to the university’s goal to increase its postgraduate student population from 23 to 30 per cent between 2016 and 2021. The restored building houses silent study areas, group rooms, classrooms and a large breakout space beneath a dramatic vaulted ceiling.

In 2017, Queen Mary University in London followed suit with the opening of its own Graduate Centre, comprising teaching, study and social areas tailored expressly to the working patterns of its postgraduate population. The university has in recent years expanded its postgraduate body, and the new building is anticipated to facilitate the continuation of this growth.
The realm of higher education is seeing transformative changes and challenges across the spectrum, but by responding to the social, learning and working aspirations of multiple student groups, universities are striving to maintain their relevance within a changing world.

Paul Roberts is co-author of University Trends: Contemporary Campus Design, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2018) and director of Turnberry Consulting.

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