Universities: the power behind the throne of the regional economy

With or without “Brexit” the higher education scene globally is changing. The problem that we all face whether we live in the UK or elsewhere is that the impact of change is difficult to predict, yet the changes could have profound implications on how we use or develop higher education learning environments.

Architectural design in one way is a scenario of the future. This is from the end of year show at the Department of Architecture, University of Westminster



A way to explore this is through the use of scenarios – a sort of hypothetical alternative reality.

Here is a scenario to think about. It is based on one I developed for a project I was working on back in 2008 looking at the future of higher education:

The year is 2029.

Universities are merging to form enormous regional centres, the larger ones have over 300,000 students. They are largely self-funded and have one main centre with hubs across the region, the world even, with global connectivity. By now some of the once well-known universities have disappeared altogether while others that became less and less financially viable have seen the profitable parts taken by other universities leaving the rump to fail.

The nature of higher education and what it does has changed. While there is still some ‘traditional teaching’, the real focus is on the development of skills with much more focus on creating links with business to create long-term programmes for industry. To do this long-term universities have developed the idea of learning contracts that support people throughout their careers – not only with tailored courses but mentoring too. This grew out of the realisation that universities could offer far more than courses and training. The advantage of universities is that they can facilitate the creation of knowledge and generation of ideas because they allow space – both physical and mental – to research areas of interest without the distractions of life, or business.

Academics spend much of their time now creating online courseware – this is rated by students and something that universities have to be alert to as they will stand or fall by such ratings. The courseware must be updated every year to stay ahead of the game – a bit like producing a new season of a TV series. While producing such courseware demands intense research and partnership with industry producers or material, academics have become storytellers more than they ever were.

Research itself has become much more a partnership with industry, much of this is happening outside the university. This relationship with business means that you will now find businesses based inside the university buildings cheek-by-jowl – therefore creating space with high levels of data security is key. You will also find more researchers based in business organisations, even though they are not employed by those businesses. This is not like the old business park model where the once isolated enclaves of high-end research and incubators on the edge of towns near once prestigious research universities have had their day.


First, the power of regional economies. It’s less and less about national economies – it’s about the regions. Wherever you are in the world the focus is on the importance of the co-creation of knowledge. Higher education and the private and public sectors have come together. Regional business, and so the university business is global, yet local remains critical.

Second, the focus on holistic skills development.  The focus of all education is on preparing young people for collaboration, creativity and innovation. People must be able to communicate and empathise. Such interpersonal skills will have become the essential assets that modern-day workers must have. The routine manual and cognitive skills of yesteryear are handled by computing technology. And even, technology has begun to tread on some of the non-routine analytical work as artificial intelligence has developed. Learning skills requires a totally different approach to  just accumulating subject based knowledge which can easily be done online.

Third, students and academics value health and well-being in their work and learning environments – of course we already know this as it’s been the case for a while now that . But the places that we create for them must recognise this , not just as physical environments but more so as social environments.

Where does this happen?

You may ask why, if we can use technology to do our research, deliver access to more information, teach people, communicate with the world, why do we need built space at all?

The reason is simple! Still in 2029 – and perhaps more so now because of the relentless rise in social media – people need to be together in physical space. The business of education, research and work remains ultimately a social process.

So what, for the buildings and space used in the world of 2029 when people interact is even more fluid. How they interact in time and space is more varied, and where they interact shapes social relationships.

In 2029 we talk about space curation as universities don’t necessarily own it, or much of it, even though we are so large – we need to provide more of it because we have so many people who come together in various ways, but we have to reduce the amount we have to keep our costs down. So there are a lot more discussions about ownership, sharing or leasing. How much? What sort? Why? Security? These questions not only pre-occupy universities but designers too – just who is the client or customer now?.

Some universities have even set up property trusts with other organisations so that they can better manage the space together – they can all use it when they need it.

Since so many buildings have some connection with learning or research, the distinction between what is private and what is public has become blurred. People have unlimited access to the lower floors of most buildings as well as external spaces at ground level. Often more private activities take place one or two floors above – where you as the public might occasionally be invited but the core teaching and research happens often in higher levels.

Sharing space with business raises obvious questions of data security – particularly as here where you have lots of different small organisations and research groups renting space by the hour, working on sensitive projects.

The focus is on creating places for interaction – we see it happening now. The key though is variation – varied space. Many fewer classrooms – that presentation stuff is done on line.

Yet bringing people together is still important – the seminal ‘lecture’ with the renowned speaker is still important.

In 2029 of course, students want to live near their university which necessarily sees a growth in the service economy – healthcare, retail and leisure. But universities still have to provide accommodation from apartments and rooms, to the surge in ‘learning hotels’ where groups of students stay for a couple of weeks on residential courses.

There have been some downsides to all of this. University campuses seem fragmented: How do you manage this?

Large numbers of students in one place can lead to social exclusion. Particularly though, what do you do with the unwanted buildings?

Public looking, but factually private spaces may become prominent parts of the urban landscape. The line between inclusive and exclusive space is thin but significant.

The power of the university is clear, but the fragility of the link to its host community is equally clear.

The university has become the power behind the throne of the regional economy!

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