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2018 preview: Higher education

Richard Irwin

The UK’s higher education sector has proved remarkably resilient during an unprecedented period of uncertainty brought about by global economic and geopolitical conditions.

Our higher education institutions’ enduring international appeal is matched by their reputation for world-class teaching and research, making the UK second only to the US in terms of global market share. 

This is one of the UK’s most successful sectors and capital investment in higher education facilities is at its highest level in more than a decade – an encouraging proposition for contractors operating within this space. 

The question of whether – and how long – this level of investment can continue is hotly debated, but for the foreseeable future there seems genuine commitment to invest in world-class facilities, especially with a global market in sharp focus.

Specialist subject

Higher education’s multi-faceted nature is a source of great opportunity for those contractors with the requisite expertise and suitable specialisms. The most obvious example of this is the burgeoning market for student accommodation. Most UK cities are undersupplied with quality student accommodation, and specialist funds and developers continue to move into this space to satisfy demand.

A further hybrid sees accommodation specifically targeted at overseas students, providing ultra-high-end rooms with concierge service and all the trappings of a luxury hotel. Overseas students now contribute more than £25bn to the UK economy annually – this is not an area the UK government will be looking to restrict as we forge our new role in the world.

“The potential to unlock assets, create better working environments and add value and flexibility is an area where contractors will prove invaluable”

Commercial partnerships and co-operation have reached new heights in the development of higher education facilities.

Many of ISG’s recent projects, including those at the University of Cardiff and the University of West England, provide space specifically for collaboration and knowledge-sharing between staff, students and the business community. This is a trend that is only set to accelerate as universities look to commercialise original research and exploit the IP at their disposal to provide important future revenue streams.

Radical redevelopment

Heritage is both an asset and a potential issue for many of our oldest institutions. Preserving the character and history of our campuses, while upgrading facilities for digitally native customers, represents a major challenge. This is an area where radical thinking will be rewarded.

A technology-led approach, with a master systems architect defining and then designing how an existing building will take its place in the wider digital campus, will streamline efficiencies and bring the reality of a truly smart campus one step closer.

Finally, there is an increasing willingness for institutions to look to the private sector for learning – especially in terms of efficiency and rationalisation. This is a major opportunity for contractors to demonstrate how, for example, modern office design and delivery is driving flexibility, increased productivity and staff retention.

Campuses invariably juggle large, disparate and ageing property assets that don’t work efficiently.

The potential to unlock assets, create better working environments and add value and flexibility is an area where contractors will prove invaluable in 2018 and beyond.

Richard Irwin is director of ISG’s Engineering Services business

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