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Marina Carroll_Architectus Insight Education

Q & Architecture: the untapped potential of Education Precinct Partnerships

It’s been a strange time for universities; the pandemic has kept many students away from campuses and put a cap on international students. As an architect who works with tertiary clients, have you noticed any repercussions in the way universities are thinking about future projects?

At the beginning of the pandemic, universities were bracing for the worst. Back in 2020, there was a palpable sense of doom and many tertiary projects were put on indefinite hold.

A major concern was that international students wouldn’t return to Australia. With our borders closed and the world of educational opportunity online, could Australian Universities retain these students?

But what we saw was universities at their most agile. They harnessed the full capacity of their systems and technologies to put programs online in more interactive and engaging ways than ever before. In some ways, the pandemic accelerated future learning modalities, as many universities were already trying to transition to a truly hybrid way of teaching and learning. Other universities rapidly established campuses overseas or formed new international partnerships.

In 2022, IBIS World data indicates international students at Australian universities are beginning to rise again and will continue to do so over the next five years. New data from the Federal Education Department also shows that international student enrolments are up 85 per cent from this time last year. The lag of international students we were anticipating doesn’t look like it will come to fruition, or at least not to the magnitude that was anticipated.

Many of these enrolments are online, which means we’re yet to see the impact on campus and the activation of the broader precinct and affiliated industries – student housing, retail, etc.

Universities are becoming flexible to student preferences in a way they’ve never been before. The idea of blended learning – where some activities happen on campus and others occur virtually – has not only become the norm but is just one mode of delivery in a variety of options. There are now “hyper-flex” classes where you have students in the physical classroom learning concurrently with students off-campus tuning in virtually. This is a huge challenge for educators – it takes a lot of choreography to manage both types of students, and it drives the need for different types of spaces. This was all accelerated by the pandemic.

For multifaceted reasons, many major university projects are still facing delays. Some remain on hold. Others are experiencing Development Application lags after two years of relative inaction. Meanwhile, others have spent their time thinking and planning strategically for the future. What are the best economic models for university developments going forward?

For their part, universities have been thinking about how they’re currently using space, and how they could use what already exists more deliberately. I suspect we are going to see a torrent of adaptive reuse projects in the years to come. The confluence of sustainability drivers, new learning modalities and the ability to be primary tenants in joint developments. University students and academics are a socially progressive group; there’s an increasing urgency to create sustainable places and to utilise existing assets to get the longest lifespan out of campus buildings. We are going to see more sustainable campuses, smarter campuses and campuses with much greater activation and utilisation.

Architectus designed Melbourne Entrepreneurial Centre.

Melbourne Entrepreneurial Centre MEC Interior Design

You recently contributed to a paper published by the Property Council of Australia (PCA), which described the untapped potential of partnerships between Australian universities and the private sector. Is there successful precedence for this model elsewhere?

In Australia, probably the largest scale project of this kind we’ve seen to date is the recently completed Melbourne Connect innovation precinct. Powered by the University of Melbourne in partnership with a consortium led by Lendlease, Melbourne Connect brings together world-class researchers, government, industry, SMEs, startups, higher-degree students, artists and Science Gallery Melbourne, in a purpose-built innovation precinct right in the heart of Carlton and next to the Parkville campus and Biomedical precinct.

Architectus was the University of Melbourne’s advisor over the five years of the development, and our Interiors team designed the precinct’s Melbourne Entrepreneurial Centre. Drawing on the University’s expertise across emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, computer-science, cybersecurity and privacy, it will become a digital and data powerhouse with the people, place and programs at Melbourne Connect designed to help unlock digitally driven, data-enabled and socially responsible solutions to our most pressing challenges.

The diversity of the people engaging with the Melbourne Connect precinct – the blend of public and private, students and experts who have been honing their skills over decades – is what gives a precinct like this such great potential. It brings together clever people from different backgrounds working together towards a common goal.

What are the benefits of this model for both universities and private investors?

The examples I mentioned above illustrate that there are many circumstances where these partnerships in higher education are symbiotic.

For the universities, it’s not purely a question of resources; Australian universities have better credit ratings than the big four banks and access to the capital to finance projects if they want to. But that doesn’t mean they should.

When the objectives between universities and private industry are aligned, that’s when these types of projects can come to fruition. This allows universities to direct more of their resources towards what they do best: excellence and innovation in education and research. It also releases their capital to invest in other areas.

These innovation precinct partnerships give students opportunities to gain real-world experience and create connections in industry. Universities that can give students pathways to develop meaningful networks before graduating have a competitive advantage.

For private investors, universities are long-term, stable clients. There has long been a degree of clout that comes with being associated with a university. Universities are recognised as hubs for excellence in innovation, having a research arm or a start-up within a university can shine a spotlight on the work of a private organisation. They act as magnets in attracting and curating other key tenants.

Can you reflect on the process of contributing to the PCA research and the role of the PCA in driving forward new models?

The PCA consolidates people from across the property and construction industries who can have an impact on driving the industry forward. It’s quite easy to get frustrated in this field of work; with every project comes an obstacle course of barriers, hurdles and regulations that you must face before you can realise a project. PCA brings together a breadth of expertise aimed at removing or minimising these obstacles.

As a member of the PCA’s Education Precinct Committee, I’ve been working alongside change makers and thought leaders who specialise in education projects on both sides of the table, representation from our major universities, schools and TAFE NSW as well as the key financiers, developers and builders working in this space.

It’s rare to have such a representative cross-section of stakeholders working together – all the right brains in the room clearly articulating what the challenges are, and then going through the process of finding solutions.

It’s also been interesting working with people who are entering conversations with different agendas or objectives. Lots of healthy debate takes place. Finding mutual ground between the different sides is a key part of the process. It also leads to stronger ideas, and better solutions that reflect the complexity of the challenges facing the sector.


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