“The world students inhabit before they begin university has changed substantially in the last ten years,” says David Judge, Group Creative Director of Space Zero, “from the dramatic effect on our homes due to IKEA’s arrival to the ubiquitous shopping malls and the new forms of entertainment created by the experience economy. Students don’t arrive on their first campus visit comparing unis to each other; their initial impression is compared to Hollister, Yo Sushi and Junkyard Golf.”

Photograph: Abercrombie & Fitch

Gen Z – defined as those aged 7 to 22 in 2019 – are natives of today’s experience economy, more likely to post a photo of where they’ve been, not what they’ve bought. They are used to inhabiting spaces designed for them to dwell or hang out in; their expectations set by modern retail, leisure and hospitality environments. As they enter higher education, these spaces have been the backdrop against which they have learned to navigate the world.

The Sticky Campus
In a challenging period for the Higher Education sector, with rising student expectations, financial uncertainty and strong competition from a range of new providers, today’s universities are looking to create a so-called ‘sticky campus’. An export from Australasia, the concept of the sticky campus is familiar to many but nevertheless still offers plenty of untapped opportunity for innovation.

At its core, the sticky campus is somewhere students can feel they belong. It’s a connection of learning and social spaces which engenders a more meaningful learning experience, ultimately promoting better academic outcomes and stronger relationships with fellow students and educators. There are also potential “knock-on revenue benefits for an institution if the number of people on campus remains consistently high”, according to the Higher Education Design Quality Forum’s 2019 report on social learning environments.

The same report also revealed that students spend on average 45% of their study time on campus, a figure that has huge potential for improvement in the shift towards the sticky campus.

A Different Direction
There have been moves by universities to improve their campuses, with more than £3bn invested in new buildings in the last year. But is the money being funnelled into the right channels in order to engage Gen Z? The focus for new developments is often on creating outwardly stylish, state-of-the-art campuses which don’t necessarily centre on experience, community and, importantly, retention.

Jonathan Wolff, a professor at University of Oxford, underlined the issues with this approach in a Guardian article: “The only people who are really impressed by the new are those who were appalled by the old. For future students, these buildings are simply the new normal, the minimum a university should provide. For the more privileged, often they are not better than the facilities they had at school.”

“Second,” Wolff continued, “some of the new building misses its mark. I’ve sat in seminar rooms with ceilings so low no one beyond the first row can see the PowerPoint screen. This is what students will remember, not the brushed-aluminium finish.”

Inside Out
To create a genuinely sticky campus, universities would benefit from designing spaces from the inside out, prioritising the needs and experiences of the student community rather than designing an impressive building and retrofitting the educational and social spaces around it.

These new spaces have the potential to answer to students’ changing needs throughout the year, and indeed the day, in order to encourage them to stay on site. Formal, informal, social and individual educational spaces account for different learning styles and moods, while flexible social spaces with charging points and a choice of ‘short stay’ and ‘long stay’ seating allow students to chat, study and relax as they require. Gen Z want spaces which bends to their needs, whether that’s grabbing a coffee or writing an essay.

Outside Influence
As “the role of universities, methods of teaching… and the expectations of students have evolved much faster than the buildings in which most institutions are housed,” according to Building, it’s become increasingly important for universities to look outside of their sector in order to influence their design process, particularly to brands and businesses which are already fulfilling the needs of Gen Z.

A CUBO campus experience survey found that universities which took inspiration from co-working spaces felt more empowered to deliver on campus experience and react to student needs. Many of the 59 institutions that took part took inspiration from a much wider range of source too, from tech company campuses and food markets to the high street. A wise choice given that students named Nike, Apple, Adidas, ASOS and Zara amongst their top ten most admired brands in an open poll by Campus Society.

Nike World Headquarters, Oregon
Photograph: Nike

Nike’s university-like World Headquarters in Portland, for example, provides ample inspiration for Gen Z-focused design. Innovation is encouraged at every level, and WHQ is set up to support new ways of thinking. ‘Freestyle’ spaces encourage creativity and collaboration, while roof terraces provide a spot for both meetings and relaxation. Wellbeing is a big focus too, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, basketball court, weight rooms, a spin room, a rock-climbing wall, and a 400-metre track made from 50,000 recycled athletic shoes providing plenty of opportunity for a workout between meetings.

The Student Hotel Campus Barcelona Marina, Barcelona
Photograph: The Student Hotel Campus Barcelona Marina

The Student Hotel’s new Barcelona campus is another key point of reference, providing what many universities are currently lacking. Not a hotel at all, the student-only residence taps into the co-working culture that Gen Z identifies so closely with, featuring modern study lounges designed for motivation, fully equipped kitchens which encourage bonding and four swimming pools created for maximum relaxation. Even McDonald’s is responding to the needs of a new generation, with “bright, minimalist interiors using finishes such as grey terrazzo, warm wood laminate panels and white grid tiles”. The message? “If you give us a chance, maybe you’ll even enjoy spending time here” is what interior design magazine Frame takes away from the redesign.

With the world at large responding to and re-shaping Gen Z’s expectations, universities mustn’t get left behind. Judge sums it up succinctly: “Having a Costa on site is not enough. Universities need to consider themselves as a unique experience from start to finish.”

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