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This article is a collaborative effort between Lorraine Monaghan, David Everett, and Jenny Jones, explaining how partnership working delivers the best examples of service delivery

In today’s competitive higher education landscape, the partnership between universities and facilities services providers is changing, evolving into a model of seamless partnership working as one unified team to enhance the campus experience. Beyond routine maintenance, these services are now crucial in creating dynamic campus environments that meet evolving student expectations. This shift is driven by factors like technological advancements, changes in student demographics, and an increased focus on well-being and sustainability. This article explores the current trends and challenges faced by facilities services teams in the higher education sector, emphasising their evolving role in shaping the future of higher education environments.

A changing sector

In recent years, universities have heightened their focus on student well-being and sustainability. Today, students perceive their educational experience as extending beyond traditional classrooms and attending university can be costly for students and their parents and they feel the need to have a formative and important experience while attending. They also expect their university to reflect their values. This necessitates a strategic approach from facilities teams, balancing cost-efficiency with demands for technological advancements and more sustainable approaches.

The higher education sector is witnessing significant growth. There has been an increase in the number of universities, leading to heightened competition for student enrolment. In this competitive environment, the role of facilities management has become more crucial in shaping campus experience, which can be an important point of difference for universities.

International student enrolment has seen a significant increase over the years, now constituting nearly a quarter of the total student population across the UK. The increased diversity of the student population and an increased focus on the importance of inclusion is informing decisions taken by campus management. Prioritizing the accommodation of diverse cultural backgrounds and needs has significantly impacted various facets of campus life, extending from dining services to residential accommodations. University teams aim to provide a ‘home to home’ feeling for students as they take up residence on campus.

As with all sectors, Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the education sector, with an increased appreciation for the role of cleaning teams in protecting communities from illness and the introduction of new expectations and practices. Another growing trend is the increased focus on mental health in universities. Recognising its importance, universities aim to create supportive environments for students’ mental well-being. This involves designing spaces that encourage relaxation, social interaction, and physical activity, promoting a healthier campus atmosphere. Facilities teams have always been key to providing the right environments for mental wellbeing; however, increasingly, facilities teams are being asked to support their university’s initiatives, such as sharing expertise on substance dangers and helping students recognize signs of mental health issues, along with keeping a watchful eye over the student population.

Central to these evolving trends is the close relationship between universities and their facilities teams. Operating not as separate units but as one cohesive entity, this partnership is foundational in creating a campus environment that is both inviting and conducive to learning.

The Evolving Role of Facilities Services
Facilities services teams within universities across the UK and Ireland are earning acknowledgement for their role enhancing the overall student experience.

A key evolution in the role of facilities services is the transformation of campus security. In many universities security solutions are being reimagined and security teams are being rebranded to reflect a more guardian-like role, prioritising the safeguarding of students. In many universities, security officers are referred to as campus experience officers or campus ambassadors, reflecting a broader and more engaged role. Their role extends to offering advice on personal safety, acting as first responders in medical emergencies, and being a source of information and assistance in various situations.

The significance of these services in contributing to mental health is increasingly recognised. Environments that are clean, secure, and visually appealing play a vital role in mitigating stress and fostering a positive mindset. However, facilities teams are also supporting university initiatives to look after the mental health of students, particularly security officers who keep a watchful eye over students and providing information about ranging from the dangers of intoxication to how to spot the signs that someone is having suicidal thoughts.

Facilities teams shape campus culture and environment, ensuring impeccable order and a welcoming atmosphere. Their efforts impact the overall experience for students, faculty, and visitors, developing community spirit and mutual respect. During university events, from exhibitions to festivals, these teams collaborate on logistics, event management, and post-event clean-ups, contributing to student unity and a sense of belonging. Teams may also share expertise at events, enhancing student well-being.

Impact of Diverse and Changing Student Demographics

The increasing diversity of the student body in universities across the UK and Ireland brings with it unique challenges for facilities services leaders. As the composition of students becomes ever more varied, encompassing different ethnicities, faiths, ages, genders, and backgrounds, the need for facilities teams to be both adaptable and inclusive has never been more important.

Facilities teams play a crucial role in facilitating the smooth transition of a diverse student population, including a significant number of international students, into university life. Facilities teams, especially security officers, are often among the first people a student sees as they arrive on campus, helping to create lasting impressions. Recognising the varied needs and expectations of students—whether first-time attendees or returning mature students—these teams provide essential support. International students may find the university experience daunting due to unfamiliar local customs. Facilities teams are instrumental in ensuring their comfort, safety, and overall well-being, addressing both physical amenities and the diverse cultural and personal needs of different student groups.

Facilities teams go beyond managing campus maintenance; they are dedicated caretakers, ensuring a nurturing and inviting environment for students. Today, teams should be recruited and trained to contribute in this way. Their interactions with students should be characterised by understanding and responsiveness, ensuring that all students, irrespective of their background, feel valued and cared for. Our facilities teams on campuses often match the diversity of the students and university staff they serve. Team members come from all walks of life which allows them to more easily relate to others as individuals and as a group.

Adapting to Student Needs
Understanding and meeting the evolving needs of students must be central to any strategy. This requires maintaining a continuous dialogue to stay up to date with the needs of students, keeping pace with the changing trends in student lifestyles and learning environments. Students today need and expect more than basic functional spaces; they need environments that inspire and motivate them. These areas need to be clean, safe, and attractive, enabling collaboration and creativity.

For many, the pandemic highlighted the necessity for clean, decontaminated, and sanitised environments, but in the university sector there has always been a focus on infection control, with a need to protect students, who meet indoors in large numbers, from common health risks like colds and flu. Cleaning teams in the sector must ensure that cleaning is thorough and ensure that touchpoints are sanitised.

In universities there are areas that are in constant use such as bathrooms and areas where litter accumulates quickly such as canteens and common areas. In these areas, there is an increased need for vigilance to ensure areas remain clean and tidy. When students first arrive at university there can be a wave of colds and other bugs. Methodical frequent cleaning can help reduce cross contamination reducing outbreaks.

Universities face unique security challenges, with students, being vulnerable to crime due to the social nature of campus life. Students desire a visible and responsive security presence, with well-lit and monitored walkways. Security teams must go beyond traditional methods, becoming strategic partners to ensure a safe and enjoyable university experience, responding promptly to emergencies.

In this sector, it is crucial to build strong relationships with blue light services and collaborate closely with policing agencies to mitigate crime around campus.

Technology in Facilities Services
Embracing cutting-edge technology is a vital aspect of modern university facilities services. Universities, often regarded as the cradles of innovation and new enterprises, are expected to demonstrate forward-thinking in all areas, including in how their facilities are maintained. Our facilities services teams, by incorporating modern technologies, not only enhance operational efficiency but also inspire the student and educator community.

A prime example of this is the implementation of smart systems that gather real-time data about building usage. This allows our cleaning teams to respond to needs as they arise and provides historical data to optimise planning and resource allocation. This is highly valuable in such large and demanding environments as university campuses. On campuses it pays to know which areas require servicing in real time and which have been unused. Bidvest Noonan’s dynamic cleaning system, a recipient of the ‘Best Use of Smart Solutions’ award at the European Cleaning and Hygiene awards, is a good example; With the dynamic cleaning solution, the building activity levels are regularly reviewed, and the cleaning solution is flexed to changes in requirements within a building.

The role of robotics in facilities services has expanded significantly. Robotic cleaners, improve significantly every year. Many of the latest machines are capable of autonomously cleaning large areas. This advancement allows university cleaning teams to allocate more time to complex tasks while ensuring efficient use of resources such as energy, water, and cleaning agents.

Campus security teams enhance safety by integrating advanced technologies like improved camera systems, AI, and smart sensors, such as the halo sensor. Smart software solutions, like digital occurrence logs, enable efficient incident monitoring through visual heatmapping, helping teams identify trends and respond effectively.

Technological advancements are also delivering significant sustainability progress. Innovations like the Comac Inaqua, which recycles water from floor cleaning machines for reuse, and aqueous ozone systems, which convert tap water into effective cleaning and disinfecting solutions, and powerful scrubbing machines which use less energy, water and cleaning chemicals all contribute to more sustainable campuses.

Sustainability and Environmental Practices

Today, universities are highly motivated to integrate sustainability into their campus operations. Environmental stewardship has become a priority in the sector as in many others.

Significant sustainability improvements often come from changing existing processes and procedures rather than solely introducing new equipment or chemicals. This approach can include optimising and resourcing usage, adopting eco-friendly cleaning methods, as well as implementing energy-saving practices.

Awareness programs that focus on issues like waste reduction, energy conservation, and the broader environmental impact can help create a culture of sustainability. To be most effective, facility services teams need to be the drivers of such programs.

We have found that water conservation measures, including rainwater harvesting and water recycling systems, can be effective in reducing the campus’s environmental footprint.

The Future of Campus Facilities Services

As we look towards the future of campus facilities services, it’s evident that the sector is poised for change. This will be driven by technological advancements, evolving student needs, and a continuous push towards sustainability.

The future of the facilities services industry is increasingly intertwined with technology. We’re likely to see a greater adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in routine maintenance tasks. AI can help predict maintenance needs, thereby reducing downtime and improving efficiency. Similarly, automation in areas like cleaning and landscaping can free up human resources for more complex tasks.

Another trend is the growing use of data analytics. By analysing data on campus usage patterns, facilities managers can make more informed decisions about resource allocation, energy management, and space optimisation. This data-driven approach not only improves operational efficiency but also enhances the overall campus environment.

One of the key challenges in the near future will be adapting to new health and safety standards following the pandemic. This will require innovative approaches to ensure that campuses are not only safe but also conducive to learning and social interaction.

Sustainability will continue to be a major focus area. There’s a growing expectation for universities to lead in environmental stewardship. This involves not only managing resources more effectively but also educating the campus community about sustainable practices.

Another challenge is maintaining the balance between security and privacy. With the increased use of surveillance and monitoring technologies, ensuring that security measures don’t infringe on individual privacy will be crucial.

Educational institutions strive to balance their need to provide high quality facilities with their need to manage costs. They look to their facilities partners for innovative solutions that deliver maximum value, allowing them to preserve budgets for teaching, research, and other core areas.

Despite these challenges, there are ample opportunities for growth and improvement. The increasing focus on student well-being and sustainability presents an opportunity for facilities managers to innovate and redefine what a campus experience can be. By staying ahead of these trends and challenges, facilities services providers can continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of higher education environments.

The unity and partnership between universities and facilities teams are the heart of creating an exceptional campus experience. Together, they forge a dynamic and responsive environment that adapts to and anticipates the needs of students.

About the Authors:
Lorraine Monaghan is director of operations, Education at Bidvest Noonan. She has an impressive track record in the education sector, having supported a number of large and prestigious universities. David Everett is a former deputy director of campus experience and commercial services at a global top ten University in the UK, with over 25 years of experience, including at director level, across the UK Higher education sector; Jenny Jones is director of operations, corporate and public sector at Bidvest Noonan. She has more than 20 years of industry experience.