More than ever, prospective students are hinging their decisions on the appeal of a university’s campus. In 2017, research of over 200,000 students by EAB’s Enrollment Services found that campus environment is more influential than both academic reputation and cost in attracting students or indeed, driving them away. In a crowded market, campus design can be make or break. But are universities making the right changes?

The importance of open days

When campuses are so key in decision making, open days are the moment of truth for universities. It’s the day when students get to experience what they’ve so far only read in brochures or online and see how it matches up. As YouthSight explains, “In a virtual world, ‘going to uni’ feels particularly real. Real people, real buildings, in a real place. So it stands to reason that, as one of the few ‘real life’ encounters between prospective students and the institutions they’re considering, open days provide a key method of sampling the experience ahead.”

Their supporting research offers an interesting insight into just how important open days have become. In 2007/08, a little over a third (37%) of prospective students rated ‘the open day’ as ‘very important’ in their decision on where to study. By 2017/18, this had reached almost half (45%). Professor Steve Egan of the University of Bath agrees that expectations are changing and sees the significance campuses now hold for students visiting on open days. “We know from surveying arriving students that our facilities and appearance of the campus are important factors to a significant proportion of students when choosing to apply,” Egan told University Business.

A non-negotiable

While an impressive campus might once have been a nice added extra, complementing a great course or passionate, engaged staff, today’s students consider it a must in an increasingly competitive educational market. Not content with tired cafes doubling as working spaces, cramped studios or uncomfortable lecture theatres, a huge 67% of students say that facilities play a role in their university choice, with the only factor marginally more important reported as the course itself, according to the Association of University Directors of Estates. Students expect high quality facilities and services as part of their university experience, particularly in a time when most are acutely aware of the cost of higher education.

In response to the new expectations of the next generation of students, universities have begun to evolve their campuses with multi-million pound regenerations and a standard of sorts has emerged; one that sits in opposition to the more stuffy, red brick buildings that were once synonymous with academia. Big windows, natural light, open spaces and contemporary architecture are all becoming standard markers of the modern university campus, but with each following a similar formula, how does one university differentiate itself from the next? Are universities missing an opportunity to deliver unique experiences in a way that’s truly tangible to students?

More than architecture

Just as universities differentiate themselves through their brands, it’s become equally important to make a distinction through the physical space. Rather than simply an architectural project, the design of campus buildings and interior spaces should be centred around a brand experience that drives student preference, in turn boosting recruitment.

Many modern campus buildings are certainly stylish and aesthetically impressive, but exactly how students will experience a brand is often overlooked, despite the fact that university environment is the number one reason for students to choose to enrol at a different institution.

While bright rooms and open-plan spaces could be found at any modern university, a successfully designed campus will feel completely its own. Research by Cabe has demonstrated that university buildings play a significant role in recruitment, retention and performance of staff, researchers and students by distinguishing one institution from the next, reinforcing the importance of relevant differentiation within campus design. A student should be able to gain a true understanding of a university by walking its corridors, visiting its workspaces and experiencing the shared, social areas.

Perceptions of brands are shared through experiences and when a student visits a campus, they are experiencing the university brand by default. If the campus design is not delivering a brand experience, it’s difficult to leave a lasting impression.

New students, new design

Today’s students have expectations and priorities that set them apart from the students of even just a decade ago. More than just an education, they want an experience, and they expect their campuses to reflect that.

With recruitment so closely tied to campus design, a new fundamental for education has emerged. Universities must adapt to new ways of working and living, particularly when 18% of students would choose to start again at a different institution, given the chance. There’s a lot of choice out there and, for today’s students, university environment has become the deciding factor.

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