Gone are the days of the grim and grimy campus. Institutions are now offering students the VIP treatment. Hilary Wilce reports

Wrong. British universities are currently investing in new facilities like there's no tomorrow. Which, in fact, they know there won't be unless they can beg or borrow enough cash to haul their facilities into the 21st century.

The impending arrival of top-up fees, the growing competitiveness of the lucrative overseas student market, and the awareness of individual universities that not only do they need centres of excellence to mark them out from the crowd, but that these centres need to stay at the cutting-edge of research and technology, have come together to turn the British higher education marketplace into a veritable boom town of revamped labs, glittering new buildings and plush student accommodation.

At one end of the scale are refurbished halls of residence; at the other, the kind of world-class buildings by leading architects that are landmark investments. In between is a whole raft of new laboratory and learning environments that mean that, whether you want to study engineering or accountancy, someone, somewhere will offer state-of-the-art facilities for you to do it in.

So if you are a parent or prospective student planning to visit university campuses, expect to find plenty of new - or at least renovated - facilities. And if all you are confronted with is an expanse of run-down 1960s concrete, then definitely ask why!

Because, as John Lauwerys, secretary and registrar of Southampton University points out, while this might have been par for the course in the 1980s and 1990s, when no capital money was coming through from government and "many universities were looking a bit sad", times are changing.

At the start of this year the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced nearly £1,500m in capital funding for universities for 2006 to 2008, what Sir Howard Newby, its chief executive, pointed out was "the most substantial capital funding announcement in recent years". Higher education institutions are also digging deeper into their own pockets, and working harder to win commercial sponsorship, to upgrade their infrastructure.

Southampton, for example, has been working on a 10-year revamp which has so far seen £110m invested in a remodelled campus and £75m on student accommodation, with another £120m still to go. Much of this has gone on high-level research facilities, but Southampton has also invested £20m in its student union and sports facilities, and £8.5m on its library.

"People with three As at A-level can choose where they go, and are likely to look at the totality of the experience any university is offering," says Lauwerys. "In a variable-fee economy, students want to know what they are going to get for their money." Also, he says, many of today's students come from comfortable homes and will have been used to good facilities at school.

This is especially true of halls of residence. These days, students can confidently expect an internet connection, multiple electric sockets and either an en-suite bathroom, or at the very least a large number of bathrooms and loos.

At Royal Holloway, University of London, a new 500-bed hall opened last year, both in response to the demand from students for higher-grade accommodation, and with an eye to renting out facilities for the lucrative holiday conference trade.

The new rooms are larger than the existing ones, with all mod cons, including a sedum-covered roof, which changes colour with the seasons, and - at the request of the student union - double beds in every room. In addition, the college has opened a new 400-seat lecture hall and built an extension to its management school.

Royal Holloway vice-principal, Andrew Wathey, says this sort of renovation work maximises potential in a number of areas.

"Our campus is one of its strongest assets, and so we are investing in both academic and residential building. We know this brings benefits across the whole range of our activities - the quality of research and teaching, our ability to attract the best staff and students, and our relationships with industry and the community."

At London Metropolitan University they have gone for the striking statement. Drive along Holloway Road in north London, and your eye will fall upon an extraordinary, tilting building designed by the US architect Daniel Libeskind. The shiny blocks of his graduate centre, which opened last year, speak of confidence and excellence. Neil Johnston, director of estates, says that it proves that the rapidly expanding LMU is aiming to become a world-class university.

"The building is different. It's radical, it's futuristic - which really sums up what we are about. The students think it's great, and it's attracted a lot of media attention."

And, like many other higher education institutions, the university is investing in sports and science facilities and planning to upgrade its student accommodation.

In fact, all universities are benefiting from the Government's commitment in research through the Science Research Investment Fund. However, some are getting additional breaks. At the University of East London they are certain to benefit in a number of ways from the regeneration of east London for the 2012 Olympics, including the possiblity of inheriting sports facilities once the games are over.

But the university is already well into a £110m restructuring plan "done largely with money from our own balances, and the support of outside agencies," says vice-chancellor Michael Thorne. The aim, he says, is to consolidate on just two sites, with a main one at Docklands and a subsidiary one at Stratford.

The university now has a state-of-the-art architecture and visual arts faculty, designed by a staff member, and is building an innovative business school and resource centre with a 650-seat computing trading floor and a 400-seat lecture theatre. On completion, says Thorne, it will provide "one front door" for all the university's many different interactions with industry. The university is also building a new foot hospital, a new school of education, and is planning more student accommodation.

"What we are doing here," says Thorne "is laying stuff down for the next 50 years. People who know east London can't believe the pace of development."

The story continues across the country. Newcastle University has a new performing arts centre and is building more student accommodation, as is the University of St Andrews, while Imperial College, London, has a glittering new extension designed by Norman Foster's firm. These days, in fact, it would be much harder to find a campus without new investment, than to find one with. But it is important not to be overly impressed by this, warns Veronica King, the National Union of Students' vice-president for welfare, especially when it comes to accommodation.

"The standard is definitely higher now, but people shouldn't get too caught up in whether they will get an en-suite or not." When you arrive at university, she points out, it won't make much difference to your life whether the bathroom is in your room or down the hall. "What will matter is things like safety. Is the way back to a hall of residence well-lit or not? And how sociable is the hall you're going into?"

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