Investing for wellbeing in higher education estates and campus planning.


Investing for wellbeing in higher education estates and campus…

With over £3.0 billion per year invested in campuses are UK universities realising the potential benefits this investment could have for wellbeing and health?

UK Universities are investing over £3.0 billion a year in their campuses.  As those responsible for delivering this investment meet for the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) annual conference at the University of Kent this week is it time to recognise the wider value that estates and physical environment can contribute to the life of our Universities and the wellbeing of staff, students, and researchers?  Benchmarks for health are important with new ones constantly emerging, and alongside these the value proposition of physical estates to benefit health and wellbeing needs to be reappraised.  The Healthy Universities model provides some overarching principles for a whole university approach to doing so.


Woman In Built Environment / Street
the built and natural environment around us impacts on wellbeing


We value what we can measure and the cost, size, energy use, and carbon footprint of new buildings to name but a few metrics are measured in detail.  But what about wider benefits such as the value added to the health and wellbeing of students, staff, and researchers?

AUDE is holding its conference this week under the title: Leadership and Challenge: Doing Things Differently.  That could certainly be taken as a call to action to integrate a whole university approach to wellbeing and the value physical environment can add.  Such a call is closely aligned with the model that Healthy Universities has set out – the point being a successful investment case needs to be aligned with and support the whole university’s vision, the metrics only tell part of the story.  Such an investible proposition should make the whole case for investment stronger in the first place too.

On the ground much of the focus day to day can be on the great and urgent need in many institutions for suitable space for learning, research, and student facilities.  AUDE estimate a third of university buildings were built in the 1960s/1970s and nearing the end of their intended life.  Institutions expect a lot already from their estates of course and current investment has to contribute to the wider purpose and strategy of the University: it’s vision and goals, and also it’s wider role in the local community and wider society – no small challenge!


travel and transport is a key campus strategy that can support physical activity and air quality… but there is nothing more contentious than parking space!


One issue that has received increasing prominence in recent years is the wellbeing of students, staff, and impact in the wider community.  How can estates improve wellbeing though?  We often confuse health with healthcare when in reality a lot of our good health is not down to good healthcare when we are sick but to other factors that keep us well.  One of those factors is the environment we work, study, or live in which can provide clean air, sustain mental health through green space and nature, and encourage us to be active and to eat well to name but a few.  So in fact environment and therefore estates has a lot to contribute to wellbeing.  We should value this.  Much of what’s good for health has a big overlap with what’s good for the planet, for learning, and for collaborative research so there are multiple benefits from getting this right.  The links between health, wellbeing, and sustainability are central to the approach of the Healthy Universities network.

This also chimes well with the excellent groundwork AUDE has undertaken through the Green Scorecard which has just been extended to include factors such as student engagement, learning and teaching, community engagement, business interface, and leadership and governance.  AUDE state 82% of universities are now using this tool.

Measuring health is of course not as straightforward as plugging an energy monitor into a building – measuring energy use across a campus can actually be quite a challenge so measuring wellbeing across a population of students, staff, and researchers is significantly more so.  So there is a challenge to better explain and quantify these in future.  The investments continue to be made today though and whilst the benefits may be harder to demonstrate in business case terms the business imperative for wellbeing is there. 

Through ongoing investment, decisions continue to be taken about design aspects of learning environments and campuses that will have a material impact on health and healthy behaviours for decades to come.  These including travel to and around campuses; access to green space and the space between the individual buildings; through to the quality of indoor working environments and social spaces.  One might wonder, why are social spaces important for health?  Well, the WHO defines health not just as physical health but also mental and social wellbeing so spaces to keep us socially engaged are just as important as those to support us being physically active. 

For Universities the benefits therefore range from the fairly clear ones of reducing sickness amongst the staff and student population through to more aspirational benefits such as being a real attractor for staff and students who are selecting where to study or work.  Lester Breslow was the first to describe this as the third era of health – where wellbeing becomes not just the absence of sickness but wellbeing as a resource for individuals to achieve their goals in life.  Organisations could and should value this resource too to support their vision and strategy.

The strategist and author Roger L. Martin has argued that only one player in any higher education market can win on price: everyone else needs to differentiate themselves.  In a globally competitive market, institutions that demonstrate a whole University approach to investing in the health and wellbeing could have a real competitive advantage when it comes to attracting students and recruiting and retaining staff.

Most Universities recognise the beneficial impact they can have in the local community also.  Not only are they large employers but research projects often involve a wide number of participants from local communities and students often undertake placements in community settings.  Universities recognise the benefits of a central location for collaboration but this means new campuses often end up cheek by jowl with local communities. 

A significant determinant of health is now believed to be inequality within countries, holding back the health of the whole population.  Much excellent research undertaken at universities targets finding the solutions to health and social challenges.  This aim should carry through into these major investments too: from a point of equity rather than simply maximising value Universities have a duty to ensure that these investments reduce inequalities in the communities that they are part of.

Senior leadership teams at universities juggle with multiple drivers in higher education.  Delivering wellbeing outcomes can be seen as a challenge just for wellbeing services or just for teaching or supervisory staff with limited resources.  A whole university approach should also consider the unprecedented £3.0 billion a year UK universities are investing in their campus environments – it’s already happening – so why not leverage that investment for wellbeing in addition?  Indeed why not make wellbeing an integral part of the investment objectives?  Wellbeing is so closely aligned with university strategies; supportive of learning outcomes; and collaborative research that tuning these investments for wellbeing now should be a core objective of the investible proposition for estates.


Mark Drane