What students want: A roundtable on campus design

University enrolments in Australia are at their lowest in over a decade and students are feeling increasingly disconnected from higher education environments. So what needs to change? Koskela CEO Sasha Titchkosky spoke with three uni students to find out what they want from a modern campus. 

Let’s face it, going to university has always been about more than just getting a degree. While in 2024 it may not be all about raucous parties and student nights, the big wide world of university life does offer students the chance to hang out with new people and make meaningful social connections. And the research backs this up. In fact, if students feel a sense of belonging at uni, they are more likely to have increased well-being and finish their degree. This sense of connection is usually formed on campus but outside of traditional class settings – think: socialising with friends, group learning experiences and orientation activities.

Koskela has partnered with many learning institutions to help design spaces that students want to be in. Rarely in this process, however, are the students actually consulted. With university enrolments at a 10 year low in Australia, it’s critical that we involve them in the conversation. Koskela CEO Sasha Titchkosky sat down for a roundtable with three university students – Ethan and Isaac from UTS in Sydney and Chloe who lives at ANU’s college in Canberra  – to find out what they want from a campus. Here is what they had to say.

What do you consider the role of the modern university campus?

With degrees costing more than ever, the consensus is that students want their campus to be more than just a classroom. There is a much greater expectation that a campus should provide modern, engaging learning spaces designed for collaborative work, along with social spaces that encourage meaningful interactions. 

Chloe: “Because I live on campus, it has to function as a home as well – but, in general, it needs to be a kind of intermediary place to meet with people, meet with teachers, and bolster that learning and socialising.”

Ethan: “The need to bond with others is really important – especially post-Covid and with cost-of-living pressures. The two main roles the modern campus needs to play are to facilitate self-regulated and group learning by providing effective learning settings and also to act as an avenue for people to meet and be involved in different sorts of activities outside the classroom.”

Where do you study on campus outside of formal class time and do these spaces meet expectations?

There is an overall sense that most universities are still adjusting to what is needed from a modern learning environment, with the constraints and design hangovers of old buildings more acute when measured against contemporary spaces. Areas identified as most important for study outside of class were libraries and co-learning or collaborative facilities, something that mirrors Sasha’s experience of designing learning spaces: “In the work that we’ve done, we've certainly seen that the libraries are often becoming almost the student hub, and a real focal point for the student community,” she says. 

Chloe: “Some of the older libraries aren’t ideal learning spaces as they are in basements, with no reception and no natural light. So I am usually drawn to the common rooms in the colleges where there is lots of natural light, and a mix of collaborative couches and single seats.” 

Isaac: “Meeting rooms are a hot commodity. These have round group tables with a screen to collaborate for group work, and students definitely gravitate to these spaces. There just needs to be more of them. Our library is well built – it has lots of natural light, and three levels designed with different study purposes in mind.”

Do you think furniture plays a role in how successfully these spaces work?

While it may not be front of mind for Ethan, Isaac and Chloe, all say that flexible and considered furniture that accounts for contemporary learning arrangements (like group work and interactive seminars) is very important. For example, standing desks, circular tables and moveable chairs as opposed to the traditional cinema-like lecture theatres. Think of furniture that takes its cues from modern offices.“In designing workplaces, we’ve noticed that having people stand during collaborative meetings encourages so much more discussion and active participation,” says Sasha. 

Isaac: “The way the furniture is designed is quite important. For example, those in-demand meeting rooms feature curved tables so a group can face each other. They are really collaborative spaces. And we have these big seminar rooms [insead of classic lecture theatres] that are table-based. So you'll probably have six people around the table, and screens everywhere, with the lecturer moving around – that works really well.”

Do you think colours and finishes make a difference to the learning experience?

All of the students agree that natural light and bright or natural finishes make spaces conducive to learning. And while city-based campuses like UTS are restricted in their ability to work in the natural environment, all or the incorporation of natural elements – bringing the outside world in – as something they strongly value (and the research agrees).

Why do you go to campus and what does an ideal campus look like?

Ultimately, it’s all about the vibe. Ethan, Issac and Chloe each want the “classic uni experience.” What does this look like? Sitting around with friends outdoors, in spaces thoughtfully-designed for that purpose: grassy areas, shady trees, coffee shops and unique hang-outs. Most students attend university in their 20s, a time in life that’s about connecting with different people, expanding social groups and discovering new things. Campus is where so much of this “life stuff” happens – and the overwhelming feeling is that because of that, campus needs to be a place which really magnifies this experience.

Isaac: “It's a big investment to go to university. I go into campus because I want to get as much out of the university experience as possible. I don’t want to just be at home. I want to collaborate and be around people, both like-minded and people coming from different backgrounds. I think campus provides better opportunities to interact with teachers, too. Design wise: natural light, collaborative spaces and outdoor areas are really important.”

Ethan: “I think face-to-face learning is definitely better; you can ask that question and connect with people more. I think there needs to be well-designed spaces for both private study and collaboration. And, my experience speaking to (and visiting) friends at different Sydney campuses is that really big, well thought-out outdoor spaces foster a really positive university social life.”

Chloe: “The people are a huge component for me. I feel like I could do all the learning in my room at college, but I go on campus because there is a sense of familiarity and community. I would love to have more collaborative learning spaces, something a little more dynamic and accessible.”