In early September, I attended the Tertiary Education Management Conference (TEMC) in Cairns.

With so much study available online these days, it was a good way to find out who was leading the way in developing tertiary education planning and design, and who was driving these trends, given that they were imperative to encouraging a physical student presence while attracting the best research and faculty talent. It is an issue that we as a country face, considering education is Australia’s fourth largest export and it is also something close to my heart; given I have returned to study as a mature age student.

Two key questions which emerged were: What point of difference is being sought to maintain a physical presence, and what are institutions doing better to challenge their competitors? The answer, while not a complete conclusion, was somewhat surprising: corporate environments and technology are determining the trend.

Various presentations were given by some of Australia’s top universities and by industry-leading architecture, planning and corporate design specialists such as HASSELL, Gray Puksand, H2O Architecture and Lyons. In these discussions, it was interesting to note that the kinds of activity-based environments being implemented in office spaces are also being adopted in educational spaces. Just as the tasks of an employee are varied and call for flexible environments from private to more collaborative spaces, so too are the study needs of a student. In a way, students are being prepared for potential work environments that lie ahead.

Study calls for different areas. from lecture theatres for en mass presentations to libraries for quieter personal research, from amenities that service a casual meeting space or break such as an on campus café to areas more conducive to group assignments. It is these collaborative spaces in which institutions are currently investing.

RMIT Swanston Academic Building explore various seating/study options

RMIT Swanston’s Academic Building explores various seating/study options

There are many examples of tertiary education adopting these flexible workspaces into their facilities. Different areas advocate a range of work modes; from robust collaboration to quiet withdrawal for reading and writing to professional technical spaces that encourage and attract the best researches in their field from all over the globe. The need for flexibility is non-negotiable as every faculty needs to meet its immediate individual needs while also considering long-term changes, given that the average student cycle lasts three to four years.

Interchangeable, adaptable spaces are being created at the sliding of a door, along with the associated technology to support seamless operations and connectivity. There are spaces which are comfortable and inviting for brainstorming sessions yet are also sensitive to other neighbours with a high concern for acoustic treatments. Architecturally finished writable surfaces are commonly used as the biggest team research communication tool – one which never left the education sector, but has recently made its way back into the corporate sector as an important device. Every element of space or surface is utilised to its maximum capacity in the education field.

The way in which people learn from standing, sitting, behind a desk, with a tablet, headphones in, or relaxed on a couch all need to be accounted for. So too does connectivity to service a generation’s constantly changing needs as they connect to a world full of information both online and around campus. Students’ ability to communicate with research partners around the world while sharing live data needs to be considered.

One of the challenges for constructing such spaces as noted by The University of Queensland’s David Radcliffe in Learning Spaces in Higher Education: Positive Outcomes by Design is the issue with incorporating these technologies at strategic, design and implementation levels. While this is an ongoing challenge as technology forever evolves, it is an area that is becoming increasingly sophisticated as needs have changed dramatically. Power supply demands have increased to support the buffet of electronic devices, while data points are no longer necessary as we live in a world of WiFi.

Integrated audio visual equipment for presentations and global connectivity is a must as web-based video conferencing is the norm in how we share knowledge at a click of a button. As a result, the integration of building management systems to support sustainability while encouraging flexibility and technology is a new challenge that every asset owner will face in all sectors.

Embedded Technology: University of Technology, Sydney

Embedded technology: University of Technology, Sydney

These trends have also driven the development of product for the industry. Technology is forcing suppliers to adapt and develop product quickly to ensure they ride the wave of how people engage with their environments. With our electronic engaged evolution, acoustics are becoming a major challenge as we can often forget to respect those around us as we watch a TED talk or YouTube video. Maintaining acoustic integrity while encouraging flexibility is now forming part of furniture’s functionality which is beyond the traditional design and comfort considerations.

Are these spaces making enough impact though to maintain a physical presence for the greatest of minds? They’re certainly heading in the right direction. They challenge tertiary education intuitions by pushing boundaries and encouraging competitors to better integrate technology, collaboration and flexibility as they strive for a competitive advantage. While these spaces are designed to prepare individuals for the working environment, corporate work spaces now face the challenge of keeping up!