Large university building works, like the new Blavatnik and Said buildings, may not improve students’ overall experience, a recent study by the Universities of Manchester and Kingston concluded.
The paper, published earlier this month, focussed on technological innovation and flexible teaching spaces. It criticised universities for prioritising their income over improvements to the quality of teaching, quoting that UK universities spent £2.5 billion on their estates in the year 2014-15.
Following with this trend, Oxford colleges and faculties continue to invest in new buildings and extensions. St Hilda’s recently announced plans for a £10 million revamp of its riverside campus, featuring conference rooms and new teaching spaces. Magdalen’s Longwall Library, which was opened this month by the Duke of Cambridge, is yet another of Oxford’s recent building projects.
These projects pale in comparison to the considerable sums spent on buildings like the new Blavatnik School of Government, which cost around £30 million, and the Said Business School, costing more than £23 million.
Dr Steven Jones, one of the researchers who produced the paper said, “The sums being spent by universities on new buildings are eye watering, but the jury’s still out on how much difference they really make to students’ learning. One problem is that evaluations tend to ask questions like, “Has income per square metre improved?”, rather than “have there been pedagogical gains?
“When we invited students to reflect more closely, responses were mixed. For example, students appreciated having new spaces for collaborative learning, but they didn’t always understand exactly what they should be doing in those spaces. “In college, you knew what everything was for,” said one.
“‘Communication is crucial,” Dr Steven Jones added. “The danger is that once the ribbon is cut at the grand opening event, staff and students are left to figure out for themselves how the new spaces can be used to best effect. Technology is a good example. Many staff were nervous about relying on new equipment without dedicated technical support, but students repeatedly told us that the mode of delivery wasn’t important. What mattered more to them was the content of the course and the enthusiasm with which it was taught.’”
The paper is supported by a survey of 212 students from Russell Group universities, in which only 5 per cent said new building works were the main necessity in improving their student experience.
Balliol fresher Nicola Dwornik affirmed this, telling Cherwell, “I don’t see much point in university building works. Arguably having more work spaces where students can study is always a bonus, and provides that sometimes much needed variation.
“Perhaps, money could be spent to extend our online range of articles so works before 2012 are available online, so one doesn’t need to trek to the Sackler to find out that the classics library doesn’t even have a paper copy of them either.”