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The 2022 edition of the AUDE Higher Education Estates Management Report is published today, 13 December 2022. The data on which the report is based covers the period August 2020 to July 2021 – and as a reminder, this is the height of the pandemic, the period in which universities are trying to work out if they can open successfully for the autumn term of 2020, sending students home early for the ‘cancelled Christmas’, and we are all hoping that the vaccination system (launched in December 2020) will rapidly have the desired effect. It is a time of immense upheaval, and this year we read that disruption in virtually every item of data and every graph. It is reasonable to think that this annual EMR report will be the best at showing that sense of before/after, and therefore be useful as a marker for years to come.
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Capital spend at UK universities during the pandemic dipped to the levels last seen in 2015/16 (at around £2.6bn), but given the sheer amount of uncertainty and difficulty around on-off plans on sites nationwide, that level of resilience seems a little short of remarkable. Overall income was heavily supported by key demographic trends which see rising numbers of UK students through towards the end of this decade. With travel and work options heavily curtailed by the pandemic, going to university became a more popular choice for home students than ever. This was also the period of significant uncertainty around A-levels results. Universities found themselves budgeting for fewer international students, yet with a huge upswing in home students after the failure of the grading algorithm led to teacher-marked grades being used as the final judgement. And it was the time of furlough, with 60% of universities using that option for estates team staffing (in summer 2021 AUDE/Universities UK research) as just one indicator of extreme budgetary pressure.
In every EMR it is important to remember the context at the period covered by the data, but this year, never more so. But it is fair to say that at a point of maximum uncertainty, many universities were distracted from traditional spending patterns, and these show up in surprising increases and decreases in activity, which again can only be explained by understanding the Covid timeline. Every university has been aware of the irony of paying extra to heat buildings where every window was open to allow for better ventilation. On comparatively empty campuses, there was an increase in repairs costs of 5% as estates teams used the opportunities available to them to arrange works that would have been more disruptive at any other time. Some non-statutory compliance activity stopped as budget uncertainty hit, but the data also shows us a significant spike in maintenance spend towards the end of the reporting year as the government’s ‘four stages of recovery’ began to allow a path forward.
Many institutions introduced ‘Covid budgets’ during this period. Those special budgets covered many things that were under the estates remit to manage – extra signage and additional cleaning regimes, for instance.
The biggest question throughout the year was a variation on ‘Could we, should we and how can we re-open?’ Colleagues in estates and facilities teams across the country rightly took pride in everything they did to maintain the life of the campus, in the unending rounds of behind-the-scenes activities, security and systems checks, wellbeing conversations with isolating students and more, that became their daily task. But of course our universities were not open and operating as usual during this period. Given what we have learnt since, perhaps working life has changed more quickly and completely than we could ever have imagined. And maybe there is no going back.
For our students we can see other patterns. The number of students living at home or in the parental home rose as concerns about safety and the lack of in-person teaching led to many opting out of accommodation arrangements that no longer brought the expected campus experience. Campus-generated income including from food concessions and other retail, and income from accommodation are both down, which can be tracked back to the pandemic disruption.
It is tempting to interpret this year’s EMR data as the point at which everything changed even if at the time we were focused on a ‘return to normal’. This is the year we began to think about the ramifications for the long-term of a shift to hybrid working. We became more focused than ever before on space utilisation, and the clear unsustainability – in cost and carbon terms - of operating buildings on campuses where far fewer staff are onsite daily. Many of these questions remain in the air, but they are now a daily part of estates directors’ conversation. The whole thought process around effective space utilisation that our estates teams are currently spending so much time on began in the period of this dataset.
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