Centre for Effective Learning Environments (CELE)

Higher Education: Spaces and Places


What better place for 140 delegates to discuss how changing higher education needs will impact on facilities than the campus of the Helsinki University of Technology at Otaniemi in Espoo, Finland, designed by Alvar Aalto? What better place for 22 speakers to explore the future of universities than in Finland where hotly debated proposals for university reform could have a profound effect on facilities and buildings used by universities?


“The university reform will give universities more autonomy,” said Anita Lehikoinen, Director of the Division for Higher Education and Science at the Ministry of Education in Finland, in her conference opening address. One consequence is that universities will have to manage their own affairs and one key resource area that they will find themselves responsible for is their buildings. They will have to make decisions about whether and how their physical infrastructure meets their needs. Currently the state is responsible for managing university buildings. The aim of the reform is to separate universities from state control and from the state budget so that they will be responsible for managing their own affairs, raising private funding and recruiting staff. The reform is due to become law by 1 August 2009.


One such example is the new Aalto University which will be formed out of a merger between the University of Art and Design (UIAH), Helsinki University of Technology and Helsinki School of Economics.


Bringing these three universities together will open up opportunities to innovate around education, promoting greater understanding between the fields of engineering, business and design. In his keynote address, Professor Yrjö Sotamaa, Rector of UIAH, said that there must be a focus on creating innovative ways of applying knowledge, shifting from technology-led development to human-centred innovation activity and that design can be a focus for this. He added that the greater autonomy will provide more freedom in recruiting staff as well as funding for research.


The conference looked towards the future when OECD analyst Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin discussed the impact of changes in technology, demography and globalisation. He drew the following conclusions: Virtual universities will not replace physical universities but the physical environment will have to cater for a different mix of students. We must still allow for use and storage of books because ebook formats are continuously changing and new software may not always make existing ebooks accessible. And with globalisation we may see a rise in multi-campus universities, perhaps with buildings being the physical embodiment of their international prestige.


The issues facing higher education were explored under the four themes of spaces for learning, research and innovation, knowledge transfer, and sustainable spaces and places. The conference heard how student “learning” takes place in different spaces, not just classrooms, and that the incidental spaces such as cafés, corridors and courtyards as well as places outside the university are important. “Students have a different attitude and are focused on the whole learning experience, and buildings will need to reflect this,” said Andrew Harrison, Director of Research at the UK architectural practice DEGW. Harrison also pointed out that a problem in many university campuses is the low utilisation of space and that it is an expensive commodity to be left idle.


Different environments can stimulate innovation by enabling different interactions between people either in physical environments or virtual environments, and it is important to provide a variety of workplace and learning settings.


Knowledge transfer happens in a variety of different places, some within a university, some external such as in other organisations with links to the university. A difficulty is providing buildings that are flexible enough to cope with continuous change. Among some of the solutions to deal with these questions were establishing a coherent process that engages all stakeholders in the development of building projects.


The conference discussed the nature of sustainability in reference to both the long-term viability of buildings and the need to create more flexible spaces, and also in terms of their environmental qualities. An important issue that arose is the necessity to measure the environmental impact of buildings in use rather than simply rely on designed assumptions.


The conference took place on 21-23 May 2008. A full report will soon be available on the PEB website.


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