Remote work is here to stay, but the importance of meeting in person is also understood better than ever. The various changes to university campuses are generating conversations about the kind of facilities that would best serve the scientific community and students.
The University of Oulu’s Linnanmaa campus is renowned for its colourful, boxy architectural style. The first buildings were finished in the 1970s, located approximately five kilometres outside the city centre. At the time, the idea was to build a campus with everything a student might need.
Now, the university wants to be amidst the city life. In 2019, a plan for a campus in the heart of the city was put into motion. This plan was influenced by the attractiveness of a city central campus, the poor condition of the Linnanmaa campus, and the opportunity to save money and space.
Many university staff have opposed the move, not least because of the close cooperation between the local technology businesses and the university at the Linnanmaa campus.
The location is yet to be locked down. A proposal was made to build the new campus in Raksila, near the city centre, but the Oulu City Council decided this spring that the lot would no longer be reserved for the university.
The major questions of campus projects
The discourse about the Oulu campus reflects the fact a campus is more than simply a series of halls within walls. There are major, important questions regarding the location, size, costs, and facility design of a campus.
What does the university mean for the city as a whole? Who do the facilities serve? What and who determines how the university should be developed?
Professor Olli Silvén works at the University of Oulu’s Centre of Machine Vision and Signal Analysis. He has heavily criticised the plan to break up the university community between three separate campuses.
According to a statement by the Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering professors, the conditions would be inferior to those at the Linnanmaa campus. A permit for a 5G and 6G test network would be unlikely to be obtained in city centres.
“It is important for the university community for people to actually meet each other, not just meet people from the city. At the Linnanmaa campus, we have great cooperation between technology and humanities under the same roof. It would make sense to develop the existing premises and replace the more run-down buildings with new ones”, Silvén says.
According to Silvén, the facilities should be upgraded when the educational focus is on group work rather than mass lectures, but that does not require a move to a different location. He believes the scientific community has been quasi-involved in the matter, with information about facility costs and the carbon footprint being presented in a misleading way to lobby for the city centre campus.
Last year, the rent for premises accounted for 10.5 percent of the overall university costs, which is less than many other universities. The cost estimate for the city centre campus has increased from the initial figure, and the rise in interest rates makes new construction ever more expensive.
Examples of university facility costs in 2021
University of Helsinki
Facility costs: 87 million euros
Total costs: 697 million euros
Facility cost percentage: 12.5%
University of Oulu
Facility costs: 27.2 million euros
Total costs: 259.1 million euros
Facility cost percentage: 10.5%
University of Vaasa
Facility costs: 4.8 million euros
Total costs: 40 million euros
Facility cost percentage: 12%
Facility costs: 43.7 million euros
Total costs: 377 million euros
Facility cost percentage: 11.6%
Student representative leading the vision work
University of Oulu Communications Director Marja Jokinen says their partner businesses will not be bothered by the university moving locations. Multi-location work and studying are changing the quality requirements for facilities and reducing the need for space.
The university looks to be carbon-neutral and control costs while being located near services and student housing hubs. Only a portion of the partnering businesses is located in Oulu, and a smaller portion of those can be found in the Linnanmaa area.
“We have contacted more than 50 of our partner firms, and they strongly supported the idea that the university should determine the location on its own terms. Travel within Oulu is not an obstacle for a good partnership continuing”, says Jokinen.
Vision work has now commenced at the University of Oulu, led by the University of Oulu’s Chair of the Board of the Student Union, Lotta Leinonen. The vision working group seeks to determine what kind of facilities would best serve the university community.
“In the past, students were involved very little in the project planning. This time we want the campus design to look as much like the community as possible and stem from that community’s needs”, Leinonen says.
The working group has created a survey for all students and employees, with the results influencing the design planning.
“The current Linnanmaa premises are not suitable for training experts. Water occasionally leaks through the ceiling, and there are not enough electrical outlets to charge devices”, says Leinonen.
According to Leinonen, the design must account for many requests and working methods. The need for one’s own space is emphasised in researchers’ work. To the students, the campus is a holistic environment where they do not only study but also integrate themselves into the community, practise their hobbies, and participate in subject societies.
“Right now, the guild areas are scattered every which way in various basements and air-raid shelters. If the space is isolated in the basement of some wing of a building, you won’t have many encounters.”
Heated discussions about campus projects
The pandemic has given us reason to consider the role of remote work and the need for space in the future. However, many universities already began campus upgrades prior to COVID.
One topic of discussion is the trend towards multi-space, or activity-based offices. People at universities are concerned whether they will still be able to think in peace. For example, the new Mylly building of the University of the Arts’ Academy of Fine Arts has been criticised for its lack of space and the aural environment of its open areas.
The conversation is similarly active at the University of Vaasa. This May, the Ilkka-Pohjalainen newspaper reported that part of the university staff find their voices have not been heard in the upgrade project.
According to the university’s management, the staff has been involved in many ways. The number of private workspaces has been increased from the original plan based on staff request, despite the fact this means cutting fewer costs than intended.
“We have a library building that is massive considering current needs. One of the management buildings will be the new library, and the old library building will be the main staff building”, explains University of Vaasa rector Jari Kuusisto.
Kuusisto says there is no intention to return to the old-fashioned closed office style, whose utilisation rate was already low before the pandemic. The Fabriikki building in particular is a “bomb” awaiting massive renovations, and the university wants to abandon it altogether.
Part of the plan is to renovate the Tervahovi building primarily for student purposes, utilising material such as doctoral researcher Jenni Poutanen’s work concerning the design of user-oriented learning facilities. According to Kuusisto, mass lectures will be increasingly replaced by video while campus work focuses on actively doing things together.
The Finnish Union of University Professor’s Vaasa chapter’s chair and business economics professor Arto Rajala says that the major investments have already been decided, but the staff still tries to influence matters within this framework. The main question is the need for one’s own quiet space.
“These changes have caused plenty of confusion. When plans progress quickly, it is difficult to walk them back. However, as far as I am aware, the university administration and management have tried to provide options. Those who require their own named workspace will be able to have that.”
People are concerned about being able to perform their job if the quiet cubicles of the activity-based office are taken on a first come, first serve basis, with no permanent place to store your personal materials.
“Many people have materials that need to be kept away from others for security purposes, and you cannot perform analyses on a laptop. At the very least, the professors have always had the opinion that having your own office and excellent facilities has been an important competitive advantage for the University of Vaasa”, Rajala says.
Facility development must be research-based
In campus development, it is essential to make use of the research data each university already has plenty of. This point is emphasised by academic researcher Virve Peteri from the Tampere University. She has spent over a decade ethnographically studying organisational facility changes.
Peteri has served as a staff representative in working groups for her university’s campus development project. The Tampere University is planning to upgrade their premises and radically scale them back in the city centre and Hervanta. At this stage, a 10 percent reduction in space by 2025 has been agreed, and after the second phase, the concentration would total 25 percent by 2030.
Peteri was eager to offer her expertise, but her experience suggests the researchers’ knowledge was ignored. The university has been considering facilities resembling activity-based offices, which according to Peteri often simply constitute a new version of open-plan offices.
“The consultant speeches keep repeating the idea that we will be free to work wherever we want. This talk obscures the fact we will not be able to choose the office that allows for the best possible academic work.”
Peteri is now part of the campus development project’s new “Work and Research” group and hopes the group’s expertise will not be ignored. The group has discussed amongst themselves how important it is to feel the work of university people rather than progress using ideas from consultants or interior designers.
Email communication takes over in open spaces
In the 1970s, many theories were devised about open work environments producing innovations. On the other hand, 21st century research has indicated that any innovation requires trust in the management, a quiet space, enough time to think, and familiar networks. Peteri considers this an important issue to note in campus development.
“Open spaces do not increase face-to-face interaction, which actually decreases by as much as 70 percent. In an open space, you must politely avoid others and take everyone into account, as you never know when someone is trying to focus. More and more interaction is done through email. ”
According to Peteri, more efficient use of space needs to be based on the different needs of different tasks. For example, the members of a project could work in a shared space.
Break rooms are traditionally important spaces for interaction. As open “working cafes” become increasingly prevalent at workplaces, informal gatherings begin to die off. Peteri says that when you wish to increase encounters, you must first recognise the spaces in which they currently happen.
“The university has many places for meeting people. We have break rooms, seminar rooms, lecture halls. My office is opposite the students’ activity-based area, and the door is often open so students are free to visit.
Multipurpose spaces are needed
There is a natural inclination for the universities to save a few euros on walls when their finances are looking tight to begin with. For example, the Tampere University is targeting annual facility cost savings of 4.2 million euros by 2030.
Director of Campus Development Satu Hyökki says the crux of the strategy is not to abandon properties but to improve the whole.
“We want to operate in a resource-efficient way. Our research laboratories will be centralised and modernised while facilities with our special infrastructure remain in use. The use of facilities should be developed in terms of the different faculties’ needs. Some require more sharing of facilities while others need private space. We have further increased our interaction with the community and listened to their feedback.”
Hyökki considers multipurpose spaces to be a priority for the new facilities. In a single day, a student may first need to work independently, then participate in a remote lecture, and finish with contact lessons.
“The campus of the future will certainly need spaces to support quiet work. However, interaction is emphasised as a result of the pandemic. We have got so used to remote work that when we arrive at campus, the most significant added value comes from being able to meet people and solve problems together.”
Campuses must stay lively
Campuses of the future must also consider energy use and responsibility. Suvi Nenonen, the leading expert of the University of Helsinki’s Oppimisen tilat (lit. Spaces for Learning) project has studied academic workspaces and hybrid work with an international group of researchers.
“Our important message concerned the role of the universities and campuses as sustainability and responsibility trailblazers. We do not need to build more. Instead, we need to make more efficient use of our existing resource and update our operations.”
Nenonen talks about responsible use of a shared resource. In addition to eco-friendliness, you must also consider the fluidity of the work along with well-being, locality, and financial sustainability.
“The number of named personal spaces will surely decrease while shared spaces become more common. Why not have more spaces shared by students and teachers?”
One core feature of the university is silence – the ability to focus on creating science. That is and will remain essential. Sharing spaces may sound like worsening working conditions to many, but Nenonen believes silence and concentration can be maintained despite the sharing of spaces.
“That may mean agreeing on the use of offices to ensure spaces are not empty.”
According to Nenonen, facility planning was largely focused on “super efficiency” before COVID. The pandemic and social distancing brought with them an understanding that efficiency cannot simply mean concentration. Space and well-being must be considered as well. Even if remote work remains common, university campuses are unlikely to become barren wastelands. For the sake of retaining the sense of academic community, it is crucial for the campuses to remain lively instead of becoming deserted. The campus must be a place people want to come to.
Avatars gather at virtual campus
During the pandemic, a need for better remote meetings arose. Such was also the case at the Jyväskylä University, where the JYUXR virtual reality campus was created to support learning.
Department of Teacher Education project researcher Merja Juntunen tells us how two teachers responsible for the pedagogical studies course for subject teachers contacted her in the autumn of 2020. They were meant to organise a closing event for the 100-student course, along with a poster exhibit.
Naturally, this was not going to happen as a live event at the height of the COVID pandemic. The teachers asked Juntunen – who has previously worked on virtual reality development – for advice.
With the support of the rectorate, a process began to build a virtual reality campus in two months, together with the Vocational Education Institute of Northern Central Finland. While the idea was born from a singular need, VR learning environments had already been researched at JYU for quite some time.
“Teams does not allow the same kind of interaction. With your VR headset on, the immersion is stronger because you can shut out the real world. The avatars can high-five or hug each other. You can move your avatar in the space, get close to others to talk in a group, or move outside hearing range”, Juntunen describes.
JYUXR works in Microsoft’s AltspaceVR environment. The virtual campus was made to resemble the Jyväskylä University campus with its pine forests and ridges. The virtual main building and lobby give off an Alvar Aalto feel, although the architecture was not copied directly.
Eleven separate group spaces are available, and a new “summer cottage island in Central Finland” learning environment was built after the initial release.
According to Juntunen, VR is not a replacement for face-to-face learning but is meant to enrich it and improve remote meetings. Although JYUXR was conceived as a tool for teacher education, it has since been utilised by e.g., communications and musical education learning groups. Even guests from outside the university can be invited to the virtual space. Above all, it is a space for interaction.
“The poster exhibit did not have traditional posters either, but interactive elements and plenty of discussion.”
Currently, few students or teachers own VR headsets, and participating via a computer screen simply does not feel the same. Juntunen believes VR will be fully utilised once the headsets become common consumer goods.
“Some believe all meetings must be face-to-face, but to others, virtual reality can be something that encourages interaction because you can throw yourself into a different role as your avatar and express things through it.”
Text: Terhi Hautamäki
Images: Outi Kainiemi
English translation: Marko Saajanaho
Interested to read more Acatiimi articles? Go to Acatiimi.fi/english/ by clicking the link below: