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Why is space planning important to universities in Australasia?

By Greg Jarboe

Both in the age of COVID-19 and in general, space planning has risen in prominence to become one of the fundamental drivers of university wellness. This is largely thanks to new research suggesting how spatial changes can affect learning. For example: 

  • Research shows that traditional ‘Victorian classroom seating’ in rows may inhibit learning 
  • A well-used space can foster collaboration between staff, students, and other stakeholders 
  • Flexible spaces are typical of modern work culture, which is focused on sharing 

We see this in practice throughout Australasia. For example, in 1999, the University of South Australia developed their Space Management and Planning Guidelines. They revised these again in 2015 to reflect ‘contemporary’ working practices, discussing some of the benefits as listed above.  

All of this is a case study in the effectiveness of space planning software. By grouping all essential data together, universities in Australasia can make sure they’re focusing on student wellness and long-term financial sustainability.  

So, why is space planning important for this sector? 

Space planning for universities 

When we think about the benefits of space planning, we need to take a two-pronged approach: stakeholder wellness and financial viability. Done right, space planning can lead to better learning experiences for students, while it can also save money. 

For example, the University of Otago adheres to the following space planning guidelines. All academic spaces must:  

  • Meet the university’s strategic goals 
  • Be flexible and efficient for the future 
  • Be environmentally and financially sustainable 
  • Be equitable, consistent and fair 
  • Maximise the occupancy of space across the whole campus 
  • Effectively utilise all university assets 

So, what does this mean in context? Let’s break it down. 

Meeting strategic goals

Every university will have their own set of strategic goals, usually based on core values. We can think of these in a space planning context, for example: 

Promoting people

Adequate space planning ensures that all university areas are accessible to everyone, regardless of their creed, colour, or ability. By planning spaces to accommodate everyone, such as adding ramps for wheelchair users, universities can meet their goals of diversity and inclusion. 

Fostering research and discovery

Universities in Australasia face the same funding issues and governmental obstacles as many other institutions around the world. Nonetheless, they are committed to research, empowering various academic departments to make landmark discoveries.  

By making sure we are using all resources available to us efficiently, we can get better value out of assets such as labs and library space.  

Improving teaching and learning

Studies have shown that collaborative learning can benefit students significantly. It helps to develop deeper critical thinking skills and boost students’ self-esteem. By planning our learning spaces around collaboration and a free exchange of ideas, we can improve both the teaching and learning experience. 

Meeting social responsibility

If we can make better use of our spaces, for example, using them to full occupancy to reduce energy consumption, we can meet our social responsibility goals. Sustainability is a key driver for Australasian universities. 

Stakeholder engagement

Universities in Australasia seek to have an impact beyond the students themselves. They want to build a sense of community with other stakeholders, from teachers and parents to achieving recognition on a global scale. By presenting an open, approachable space where everybody can meet and interact, universities can hit their engagement targets. 

Financial sustainability

In response to growing student numbers, Australasian universities need to be able to support sustainable growth. Once again, this is where strong space planning plays a vital role.  

This is particularly pertinent in the wake of COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, Australian universities relied heavily on their international cohorts, exporting some $37 billion in service-based exports. In fact, education is Australia’s largest service-based exports, and the nation is leading the way in world-changing research. 

However, with new revenue challenges post-COVID, Australia is now looking to revolutionise its academic spaces to foster sustainable recovery. University campuses are ‘buzzing with ideas for revival’ and some of this includes a push towards hybrid learning – making better use of the space available to us and encouraging accessible learning. 

Planning for green spaces

While Australasian universities need to be financially sustainable, they also need to be environmentally sustainable. Once again, the pandemic has made its mark here – stressing the urgency of more ‘green spaces’ for higher education institutions. 

Promoting green spaces has been proven to increase mental and physical wellbeing, both of which are particularly important in a post-pandemic world. This presents a compelling argument for space planning software – giving facilities managers better visibility over their current green spaces and working to improve them. 

Maximising occupancy across the whole campus

One of the best ways to be both financially and environmentally sustainable in universities is to look at occupancy. Without full visibility of our property portfolios, we may be overlooking issues such as: 

  • Energy being consumed in empty spaces 
  • Empty accommodation buildings not meeting leasing costs 
  • Crowding in certain places (also a potential post-pandemic danger) and under-use of other areas 
  • Money being wasted on renting facilities such as retail outlets 
  • Overpaying for energy during quieter periods of the year, such as out of term time 

Space planning helps facilities managers to identify opportunities for better occupancy. For example, if students are absent out of term time, could we use our existing assets as conference centres or adult education settings? Could we make use of utility management software to only pay for the energy we’re actually consuming? 

By upping our occupancy levels, we can respond to higher student demand, generate more revenue and potentially cut down on wasted energy. We can also alleviate timetabling issues and make sure all students have fair access to education. 

Consistency and fairness

In 2018, New Zealand introduced a free year of higher education to close the gap between students of lower and higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The results of the experiment were something of a mixed bag – some students, for example, said that funding was not the issue when choosing to enrol. 

Regardless, consistency and fairness need to be high on the list of priorities for universities – not just in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds, but academic disciplines and personal attributes. For example, as mentioned above, space planning can help university campuses to be more flexible. 

But from a departmental perspective, space planning can help to allocate funds for future plans and general university growth. By having the data laid out plainly, facilities managers can determine where the demand is – for example, the need for a new computer laboratory – and plan capital projects accordingly. This helps to allay any potential interdepartmental conflicts, drawing on data from student demand to guide the next steps of campus development. 

Utilising all university assets to their full potential 

This is perhaps the biggest challenge for higher education institutions, and is once again impacted by COVID-19. As Australasian universities struggle to deal with the fallout of fewer international students, they need to make sure they can identify all revenue-generating opportunities for their space.  

Much of this comes down to visibility itself. For example, facilities managers may not have enough graphical space data to support projects or analyse current occupancy. Similarly, there may be a lack of compatibility between CAD specialists and non-specialists – drawings essentially ‘mean nothing’ to those not familiar with the software. 

Using assets to their full potential involves a flexible approach, much like modern higher education in itself. If Australasian universities are struggling, they need to identify opportunities to capitalise on their assets. For instance, there could be commercial opportunities in hiring out spaces outside of term time. 

Only with a consolidated list of buildings, properties and assets can facilities managers meet this potential.  

Why is space planning important for universities in Australasia? The key takeaways 

As we look forward to a post-pandemic future, Australasia should continue to maintain its reputation for world-leading research. But we can only do this by making sure we use space planning to overcome challenges and serve all stakeholders. 

For both the short term and the long term, university space planning helps to: 

Secure funding for potential growth projects 

By consolidating and presenting all data in one place, facilities managers can make a strong business case for growing their portfolios or maximising the value in current assets. 

Promote a greener, energy-efficient future 

Where investment in greener projects isn’t always possible, we can look at our existing spaces and improve occupancy levels for better energy usage. 

Offer learning to students from all walks of life 

Meeting diversity and inclusion goals is a guiding principle for modern universities in Australasia. By understanding how our spaces work and how we can make them more accessible, we can offer higher learning to everyone. 

Achieve strategic goals 

Securing a better financial future that focuses on innovation is essential. We can do both by analysing our spaces, helping to reinvest back into the local economy. 

Space planning in action 

To find out more about how space planning software can help your university, contact the higher education team today. 

Tags: Space Management, space planning, space management and planning