Re-imagining The Post-Pandemic Tertiary Campus

GJK Facility Services spoke to Kathleen Packer, Director of Facilities Management at Wollongong University, about the changes we can expect to see in campus spaces in the immediate and longer term, and how facility partners can help universities adapt to changing space priorities.

Re-imagining the Post-Pandemic Tertiary Campus

Looking ahead, Kathleen Packer sees university campuses used primarily as a meeting and social space for students and buildings to be repurposed for collaboration. In the longer-term we may see underutilised spaces opened up to benefit the broader community.

Post-Pandemic Tertiary Campus

Re-imagining The Post-Pandemic Tertiary Campus

1. Tertiary institutions are going through immense change due to COVID-19. How are they adapting their campus facilities and physical infrastructure to plan for a post-pandemic future?

The University of Wollongong (UOW) hasn’t had many students on campus since March 2020.  At the beginning of the pandemic, UOW quickly shifted all classes online, which was achieved in a two-week window. The campuses had to quickly adapt as well, as some classes couldn’t be undertaken easily from home. Capacity limits, social distancing and changing cleaning routines were implemented in a very quick turnaround. The learning curve was steep and staff and students had to manage rapid changes and the unknown.  

A year and a half later, the University is now considering what students and staff need in 2022. Some classes will remain online, and hybrid teaching will continue. Traditional spaces are being reimaged in light of this consideration.

A key focus for UOW will be on campus activation for 2022 in a covid-safe manner.  It is hard to imagine that some students could be in their third year of studies without engaging in on-campus activities! This social engagement will be a key to the success of 2022.

The campus masterplans – once focused on expansion – will shift to focus on high rates of utilisation (in existing or reimagined spaces) prior to commencing large building projects.

2. What are some of the main challenges faced by university space planners?

2020 and 2021 have been incredibly busy for space planners. They have had to be very agile to keep up with the changes that came our way daily. They are modelling different capacity limit scenarios for teaching spaces, informal spaces and events. One of the most difficult parts of their job is the constant change and not knowing what government limitations might be mandated.

When universities shifted their courses online, the campuses changed basically overnight. The speed at which the changes occurred were unprecedented and created a major challenge for all space teams.

Another challenge for most universities has been the size and makeup of the workforce. Most universities were forced to downsize or centralise shared services.

Working through the complexity of a shifting workforce has been challenging in the middle of this pandemic. Moving staff is emotive at the best of times and having to do this in the middle of a pandemic, with job losses and integrating new teams, has been trying. On top of that, moving back to campus for professional and academic staff and students, after long periods of working from home, is also an emotive issue and they will have to adapt to changes in campus and new ways of working.

A big challenge for all universities will be which actions to continue post-pandemic. Some staff are enjoying working from home and will continue to do so in some part moving forward. Having online classes and lectures online will afford students with more flexible options even when on campus learning comes back.  

3. How do you see campus spaces being used by students, staff and other stakeholders in the short and long term?

Short term – I anticipate that the campuses will take a while to get back to the vibrant places they were pre-pandemic. At UOW, we need to continue to monitor capacity limits, events and social distancing in the short term. Students and staff may also be hesitant to return to campus for a while. I anticipate that large lecture theatres will be less utilised as academics have become proficient in recording their lectures, which allows students to watch in their own time. University space planners will need to consider repurposing some spaces if they continue to become underutilised.

We imagine the campus will be used primarily as a meeting space for students, with teaching being able to be completed online. The social interactions will be a priority, which may mean designing and uplifting informal spaces. We want students to complete their study/degree whilst taking advantage of services in one place, while building lifelong relationships.

Long term, I would love to see efficient uses of the UOW campuses that are aimed at engaging students first and foremost, but that are also opened up to the broader communities including schools, other industries and agencies etc.  

4. What will the campus of the future look like? And what will be benefits be?

The campuses of the future will look similar to what they do now with similar building stock. However, these buildings will be repurposed to become more flexible and current to meet the needs of the generations ahead.

Students will need more collaboration and informal spaces and less lecture style areas. The campuses need to ensure existing spaces have maximum utilisation through reimagined and creative uses for some traditional spaces. 

The campuses will become more of a meeting place for students, community and industry where formal and informal collaboration can be undertaken. Underutilised spaces can be leased out to industry and the community to facilitate that collaboration.

 5. What impacts has COVID-19 made on universities’ approach to asset management and what is essential for success in the new environment?

Reduced capital and maintenance budgets have occurred in most universities. Only urgent maintenance and capital replacement is taking place and might continue for a few years. This will put strain on the future capital programs.

On the flip side, the campuses are quieter and there is less strain on the assets in the short term. Assets need to have a level of ongoing maintenance however, to ensure they will run when students/staff come back. Students and stakeholders don’t necessarily understand the ongoing maintenance requirements even during a quiet time.

From a strategic point, this has allowed time for UOW to plan and work on strategic asset management. Finance committees will require robust data to help ensure informed decisions and gain their confidence on forward asset management planning and budgeting.

6. Can you enlighten us on any trends you are seeing (from international or Australian counterparts) with regards to their space planning and asset management? Are there any exciting opportunities being pursued?

Primary conversation is around utilisation of existing services and spaces. It is very rare that anyone is looking into building or redeveloping wholesale, but are focussing on what they have and how to best to use it with the lowest possible change or spend.

Most exciting conversations are around utilisation of spaces. There is a clear shift away from physical [clipboard] counts to ‘live’ data being generated through sensors in teaching and office spaces. It is looking like universities are taking more queues from Corporate with utilisation of teaching and research spaces an evolving discussion.

From conversations with corporate contacts the focus is on reducing overheads from building assets, generally terminating or downsizing leases. This translates to the wider decisions to reduce costs for UOW, reimagining physical assets and ownership and taking a whole of UOW approach rather than case by case or faculty single approach.

7. What do facility services partners need to do to help tertiary institutions though this period of change?

Information and collaboration will be required. At the moment, spend is limited so keeping all stakeholders informed about wider industry decisions and direction would help inform local decisions.

When providing solutions, it’s probably worth having a ‘stretch’ solution along with an immediate solution to allow for solving of immediate needs, while keeping an eye on options post COVID climate.

BIO: Kathleen Packer joined the University of Wollongong in 2018 as Director Facilities Management. Her primary role is to secure safe and efficiently run domestic campuses for the University. This includes maintenance, security, parking provision and enforcement, construction and environmental strategies. Prior to UOW, she worked within a local government context for over 16 years; having worked at both Wollongong City Council and Shellharbour City Council.
During her career she has managed facilities, building and civil maintenance, building and commercial operations, and civil and building construction. Kathleen is passionate about efficient operations, appropriate asset management and giving high level of customer service.
Kathleen is currently on the Board of the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association (TEFMA) and UOW Pulse.