Conference - Higher Education Spaces and Places: For Learning, Innovation and Knowledge Exchange


Universities need to continuously reappraise their physical infrastructure if they are to remain competitive. Not only are they faced with more students and tightening budgets, but new ways of learning and changing relationships with the business community means that often the existing infrastructure is no longer appropriate for tomorrow’s learning world.


Universities need to think differently about their use of space and whether they should own, lease or share their buildings. This was one conclusion from the second CELE/IMHE Higher Education Space and Places conference (Riga, December 2009) which was co-organised with CELE and hosted by the University of Latvia. It brought together 80 delegates from many European countries as well as Australia, Bahrain, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan and Mexico.


The focus of the conference was on the relationship between the university/city/local community and the implications for the use and development of the physical infrastructure. The efficient use of buildings is an important issue for universities faced with increasing student numbers and tightening budgets. More specifically, speakers underlined some of the challenges that universities are facing:

  • Prof. Indrikis Muiznieks, the vice rector of the University of Latvia, and and Ugis Senbergs, the architect of Riga’s new university campus in Tornkalns, addressed the issues that the university is facing in redefining its masterplan. Its buildings are scattered around Riga, which hinders efficient use of space. Second, they do not meet the needs of teaching, learning and research, and it would cost more to refurbish them than to build new facilities.
  • Professor John Worthington, one of the keynote speakers, explored the impact of universities on cities. He looked at the different ways that cities and universities co-operate and drew examples from Lund, Sweden where 42% of the population are students; Newcastle, UK where the focus is on science and Boston, US where the focus is on business. Worthington also noted that universities such as the University of Oresund are networking across cities and regions. The university has to provide learning spaces, but with IT and new ways of learning modifying the focus of universities there is a shift from formal to informal space types - from the classroom to the café.


Other presentations explored both the creation of new campuses and the effective re-use of existing buildings. Also, some countries and institutions are taking a pro-active stance:

  • Professor Alan Freeman of the University of Vilnius, Lithuania, explained the challenge that the university faces: the buildings date back five centuries. Given that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, how does one reconcile a heritage building stock and modern day use?
  • Examples of new university design were given by Colin Moses of architectural practice RMJM and Chris Harding from Building Design Partnership in the UK. A new "University Knowledge City" is being constructed on the edge of the Mexican city Ciudad Juarez, while in Rotterdam a former shipyard has been converted to an educational use for the RDM Campus in Rotterdam.
  • Demonstrating the role that government can play in stimulating change, Luis Delgado, Deputy Director General of Modernization and Promotion of University-based Research, Spain, presented the International Campus of Excellence programme being run by the Spanish government. It seeks to create an academic, scientific, entrepreneurial and innovative environment oriented towards excellence and wide international recognition, and to create academic environments which are socially integrated in the urban environment.
  • Pablo Campos (Aggregate Professor, University CEU, Spain) called for transforming traditional spaces in universities into "intelligent" spaces which stimulate a positive change in the relationship between teacher and student. Futures thinking can be used to explore how higher education might change and therefore how the buildings should respond, as Gil Ariely (senior researcher at the Lauder School of Government Diplomacy and Strategy) pointed out.
  • As if to emphasise the speed and impact of change that can overtake a university, the "design factory" in the newly emerging Aalto University in Helsinki is a response to the need to create diverse teaching, learning and research settings to meet a different philosophy. As Suvi Nenonen (Helsinki University of Technology) pointed out, "Three years ago no one had a clue what the Aalto University would look or feel like". Yet the change is significant and will have a fundamental impact on the university’s buildings.


One thing that has become clear is that the speed and extent of change that affects universities has meant that institutions are moving away from creating set masterplans. This has given way to master planning: an ongoing process where there may be a framework, but details are continuously updated.

More details can be found on the conference website at
For more information, contact: Alastair Blyth ( or Christin Cave (


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