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As we approach the start of a new academic year, Peter Fane from award-winning ground maintenance and horticulture specialists Nurture Landscapes offers his insights into the importance of facilities management (FM) at universities, reminding us of the wider contribution it makes to students, locals and the environment.
An exciting introduction to adulthood, a student’s university experience will stay with them for life, shaping career choices and creating life-long friendships.
With a record-high enrolment of 700,000 undergraduates last year and tightening competition between institutions, universities across the UK are caught in a cycle of investment; continually striving to improve facilities and bring in more academics to attract a stream of high-calibre students.
Libraries, labs and lecture halls
Accommodating thousands – if not tens of thousands – of eager students, universities can seemingly operate in a parallel universe. University caters for every aspect of student living. Boasting an expanse of libraries, laboratories and lecture halls (not to mention a labyrinth of shops, restaurants, sports facilities, and study spaces) – universities offer some of best facilities in the country.
Overseeing everything from creating inclusive, outdoor spaces to maintaining sports fields and addressing student environmental concerns, facilities managers play a vital role in delivering the experience universities want to offer and what students have come to expect.
Nurturing social circles
Anecdotally, and as any graduate will quickly affirm, you have a greater chance of winning the Euro Millions twice in a row than being allocated good first year accommodation!
Cooped up in a stuffy, dark room, littered with last week’s dirty laundry, student accommodation can quickly become suffocating for a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old. With essay deadlines looming, students often opt to bite the bullet: locking themselves away and working into the early hours of the morning.
By cultivating and maintaining beautiful outdoor spaces, facilities managers can help suppress these harmful tendencies and generally alleviate the stresses of university life.
From planting new flora around a campus lake, creating an idyllic backdrop for a summer barbeque; or the maintenance of an enclosed, peaceful escape for students to meet and socialise away from a bustling cityscape, a well-maintained outdoor space provides a welcoming and inclusive space for students.
The recently revitalised Malet Street Gardens, owned by the prestigious University of London who contract with Nurture Landscapes, are living proof of how outdoor spaces create a hub for students and enhance the atmosphere of a campus.
Through choosing new plants and regularly maintaining the upkeep of the green areas, Malet Street Gardens has been renovated into a relaxing spot for students and the local office workers to share. Sustainability initiatives such as recycling and space to entice wildlife have also placed the University of London in the public eye as a campus which is driving environmental awareness forwards.
Being open to the public and office workers, the Gardens encourage university students to socialise with individuals both inside and outside of their usual circles and demonstrates how grounds maintenance has further-reaching benefits.
Sports clubs and societies are a central component of the university experience and are a major pull for prospective students. The 2017/2018 British Active Students Survey Report produced by British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) found that not only do active students enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing and inclusion, but that they also go on to become more employable graduates.
Specialist grounds maintenance provides optimum training facilities for budding athletes. The fierce inter-university rivalries which play out at varsity year after year and the ever-anticipated nationwide sporting competition, BUCS, inspire immense university pride. Showcasing talented student athletes and top-tier facilities, varsity attracts hordes of proud students – all cheering for their respective university teams.
Competitive sport aside, well maintained sports facilities also encourage casual players and newcomers to dust off their rackets or try something new. The sports field is where friendships and competitive rivalries form, encouraging social interaction, teamwork and tenacity. Indeed, last year’s Active Lives Adult Survey published by Sport England found that active adults had all round better mental wellbeing whilst recording higher life satisfaction and lower levels of anxiety.
Motivating students to take up new sports gives them the opportunity for individual development and is likely to improve their lives on and off the field.
Giving back to the environment
Universities never sleep; the constant hubbub of students, staff and workers commuting at all hours has huge implications for local residents and the environment. Whilst the benefits of excellent sporting facilities are obvious to FM decision-makers and professionals, the environmental impacts are equally vital.
Environmental sustainability awareness is especially prominent at universities. Brandishing bamboo toothbrushes and package-free fruit, students are often at the forefront of popular and progressive sustainability practices. Aligning university facilities – and their management – with authentic and widespread student concerns enables institutions to connect with their students’ values.
The installation of new flora and maintenance of existing plants lie at the heart of most university sustainability commitments. Being one of the most effective methods for naturally reducing a carbon footprint, newly planted flora provide fantastic aesthetic benefits whilst demonstrating tangible commitment towards reducing carbon dioxide levels.
However, we can take this one step further. Wherever cost-effective, utilising electric vehicles for transport and employing more efficient technologies for maintenance work ensures that a commitment to protecting the environment is achieved more demonstrably. A reduction in fuel costs of up to 90% helps mitigate a potentially expensive purchase of an electric fleet, ultimately making it a worthwhile long-term investment.
An exemplar in sustainable facilities management and client of Nurture Landscapes, Cranfield University recently won the Wildlife Trust’s BCN “Best Newcomer Wildlife Garden” at the “Wildlife Gardening at Work Awards”. Committing to a number of initiatives, Cranfield has installed annual meadow beds and a dynamic mowing regime to improve species diversity.
Furthermore, the newly implemented Ridan composters have received praise from locals and students alike – providing an environmentally friendly solution for waste recycling. Likewise, the installation of beehives and series of hive side talks have created a real “buzz” around campus, contributing to biodiversity and raising awareness of the honeybee.
Cranfield’s sustainability initiatives have contributed significantly towards its environmental mission, firmly establishing the institution as a stalwart for bringing students and the wider community behind a vital cause.
On a different environmental theme, attracting students from lower-income backgrounds has become an increasingly important issue for universities. Providing students with the opportunity to grow their own produce generates a cost-effective alternative to supermarket food-shopping and could be key to attracting less affluent cohorts of students in future years.
Allocating allotment space on campus and educating students on which vegetables will grow best has been a highly successful method for promoting self-sufficiency.
Effective facilities management and ground maintenance are integral to making the everyday special at university. Improving the environment for students in ways which go beyond the aesthetic are important contributions to university life and bring a range of other benefits.
From attracting students from lower income backgrounds, contributing to the sustainability agenda, providing a calming outdoor environment to facilitating athletic and sporting prowess, FM is involved at every stage in shaping and improving the university experience.
Facilities Management for Universities: Shaping the Student Experience
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