Crumbling campuses

Whether it's delapidated lecture rooms or dangerous science labs, limited IT facilities or time-warp libraries, a new report confirms that the infrastructure of the UK's universities is on the verge of collapse, writes Lucy Hodges
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Students around the United Kingdom are being taught in dilapidated lecture theatres and classrooms that were built in the Sixties and Seventies, when universities were much smaller. They are inhabiting buildings that leak, where lighting is poor and even the drinking water is dodgy. At some universities, physical overcrowding is a real issue. At many, the laboratories are an embarrassment. There are weekly complaints about dust, dirt and noise.

Students around the United Kingdom are being taught in dilapidated lecture theatres and classrooms that were built in the Sixties and Seventies, when universities were much smaller. They are inhabiting buildings that leak, where lighting is poor and even the drinking water is dodgy. At some universities, physical overcrowding is a real issue. At many, the laboratories are an embarrassment. There are weekly complaints about dust, dirt and noise.

These are just some of the findings in a report out today from the Higher Education Funding Council, the first time a comprehensive survey has been commissioned on the state of the teaching fabric in higher education. A total of £4.6bn needs to be spent on remedying the problems caused by a maintenance backlog on buildings, and by the fact that many lecture and seminar rooms are no longer fit for today's needs. They are either too big or too small, and don't have adequate IT or other modern equipment, or up-to-date libraries. And they have not kept up with modern methods of teaching.

A further £500m is needed for specialist equipment in laboratories, workshops and studios so that students are given a decent education for the 21st century, says the report by JM Consulting, a firm of independent consultants.

"We need at least £5bn to give students a quality experience," says Professor Floud, president of Universities UK (UUK). "This is not an exaggerated estimate. We show in this report that the need is there. Many of the new universities inherited ill-maintained buildings that were unfit for their purpose. And many old universities are suffering from having Sixties buildings that are nearing the end of their lives."

The new evidence is part of the universities' submission to Chancellor Gordon Brown for more money in the forthcoming spending review. Other reports have also been produced – on the need for more spending on science-research infrastructure, and on the arts and humanities. Mr Brown is being asked for £8bn in total to bring the sector up to date. "Without prompt action, there is a danger that real financial damage will be done to the UK higher-education system and economy, and that the remedial action that will eventually have to be taken will be much more costly," says the report, which was commissioned by UUK and the Higher Education Funding Council.

Based on a detailed look at 20 universities, the report does not absolve institutions from all blame. They do not use space as well as they might, it says. And the recommendations contain implicit criticism of universities for not having built maintenance into their budgets. The Government and the funding councils need to ensure that this is done so that universities have five-year plans for upgrading their teaching infrastructure, says the report. In fact, universities should not receive extra money until they have produced such a plan.

Professor Floud maintains that the poor condition of many university buildings is a direct result of the 45 per cent decline in funding per student. "Universities have struggled to keep a quality experience for their students, and, in the process, have cut back on everything that could be cut back," he says.

Universities have coped in different ways. Some have borrowed heavily from the banks, which means they now have to repay loans out of teaching revenue; others have leaned on benefactors; yet others have scrimped and saved and managed to put up new buildings with cash. Compared with research infrastructure, there have been only very limited funding programmes for boosting teaching resources. The result, according to Dr Philip Harvey, academic secretary at Exeter University, is that his university has no "smart boards", the electronic devices that interface with data projectors. Such equipment can, however, be found in schools and further-education colleges. "Our teaching space is looking shabby in places," he adds. "It doesn't have the right quality of audiovisual and IT equipment that people need and expect. We have not got significant capital sums on stream to deal with this kind of problem."

Unlike Bristol and Edinburgh, Exeter has not gone in for heavy borrowing. It has instead relied on rich benefactors for new buildings, like that for the new school of business and economics. A new university that has borrowed money is Westminster. Eleven years ago, it had a collection of ramshackle buildings spread out over London – from High Holborn in the east to Regent's Street in the west and Harrow in the northern suburbs – which it inherited from the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). All were in very poor condition, according to the vice-chancellor, Geoffrey Copland, because the ILEA, which used to run them, didn't include anything in the budget for maintaining them.

The university decided to take action. An expensive 10-year strategy of refurbishment was set in train to improve conditions for the students and lecturers. "We couldn't wait," says Dr Copland. "We weren't competitive. It was said of our Regent's Street site that it was a building in which no self-respecting academic would be seen dead."

Some buildings were abandoned, others upgraded. The programme cost a staggering £75m, which the university didn't have, only £8m of which came from the public purse. The rest came from borrowing money from the banks, selling off buildings, and savings. Westminster is now faced with having to pay off a £30m bank loan out of the revenue it gets for teaching.

There is still more to be done. The Sixties buildings in New Cavendish Street are about to be refurbished at a cost of £25m. Laboratories need stripping out and renewing because students are still being taught on wooden benches, says Dr Copland. There are no modern services, poor IT, and health-and-safety regulations require better fume cupboards and air-extraction.

Leicester University has also been upgrading lecture theatres. It now needs to build an extension to the library because of overcrowding. "That is essential to keep pace with student numbers," says the vice- chancellor Bob Burgess.

Not everyone believes that the Treasury should cough up more money for teaching. One seasoned higher-education expert said that the maintenance backlog was the universities' fault. They had been badly managed and should have upgraded their plant as they went along, he said.

The problem is that higher-education institutions need a big injection of public money just to get to a stage where they are providing a reasonable service. It is difficult to see how they can raise £5bn through private funds, says Professor Floud: "All the public services are suffering from a major problem of inadequate investment and it is extremely unlikely that poor management is responsible for all these problems."

Then there are the new demands being made of the universities by the Government. If the Prime Minister wants the universities to widen access and reach the target of one half of the under-30s going into higher education, he has got to ensure that they have a decent experience. "They need the kind of facilities that previous generations of students had," says Professor Burgess.

And students deserve better, says Mike Goldstein, the vice-chancellor of Coventry University. "International students make international comparisons," he says. "If we don't provide good facilities, they will stay away. We'll lose out if we're not careful."

It's back to the sixties in the dirty, dusty labs

According to the report one university needs a new students' centre to provide a vibrant heart and to enhance students' lives. That will cost £23m. That same university also needs new sporting and recreational facilities costing £13m. The university has upgraded research rather than teaching laboratories. Their Fifties and Sixties labs are "an embarrassment". They receive weekly complaints about dust, dirt and noise. The labs have teak benches. They haven't been upgraded to support new teaching and learning methods. To have state-of-the art labs will cost £10m.

In another university most buildings date back to the Sixties and Seventies and still have the original furniture, tables, chairs, overhead projectors and whiteboards. Student numbers have grown so that seminars now contain 20 students in a room designed for 15. "Overcrowding is a real issue," says the university.

In another university a disability survey has identified the need to spend £4m. A further £9m is needed to refurbish one site to rationalise space and refurbish. An extra £17m is needed to knock down an "appalling" building which has a huge backlog of maintenance. The building does not comply with health and safety legislation, it leaks, it needs recladding and was never completed 25 years ago.

A small higher education college has problems with several buildings, particularly with a 1939 temporary single-story structure which has a flat roof. Heating costs are high, lighting is poor and drinking water is poor quality. The college has another Sixties building built on a setting concrete raft which is not fit for purpose. Its walls are porous, and are leaking, and there is no double-glazing or disabled access.