Promoting Wellness in the HE Sector


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I have experienced the interior environment in Higher Education (HE) as a designer, senior lecturer, parent of students and latterly as a postgraduate student. This has provided me with a range of perspectives from marvelling at my son’s en-suite bathroom (and noticing the cost) to wincing as students cut card on new studio tables. 

LSE4LLondon School of Economics & Political Science - London, UK

The HE landscape has changed drastically over the last two decades and we have witnessed probably the greatest expansion since that of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. With this has come an increase in student numbers, with over half of school leavers now accessing university (1), increased expectations and, not least, debt. Students expect high quality experiences in appropriate environments as well as expert tuition. They also expect value for money and don’t wish to see their fees wasted. The ‘student experience’ has become an important factor in attracting and retaining students and the environment is an important touch point here, one which is frequently reflected in student feedback. Along with this, the number of student mental health disclosures has increased nearly 5 times over the last 10 years (1), the major causes of which are Relationships and Social Life, Academic Performance and Loneliness (2).

The role of the interior environment has become an important factor in allowing students flexibility to access spaces which accommodate a range of learning and social styles which best suits their needs. This is particularly reflected in the growth of social workspaces where students can meet, chat, work and have a coffee, all facilitated by seamless digital communication. Libraries have now become learning hubs where students can socialise as well as work. At the University of Portsmouth we have turned the principal space in our main library into a series of zones delineated by furniture types and settings, punctuated by recognisable beacons such as colourful screens and vintage telephone boxes. Eating and drinking are allowed throughout the space which is open 24/7, this would not be out of place in a modern tech start up or a boutique hotel as I experienced on a recent visit to Soho House in Berlin.    

Bradfield-6LBradfield College - Reading, UK

In parallel, student accommodation has also witnessed changes in both quality and ownership. Most accommodation is now privately owned and seen as a solid investment. Jasper Sanders, principal of Jasper Sanders + Partners, a leader in the field of student accommodation, works with a range of providers and believes that ‘if it’s good for students, it’s good for business’. This drives his philosophy of designing interiors that provide value for the client and high quality social and event spaces for students. His experience has enabled him to balance the largely pre-determined layout and finishes of the room units with the greater freedom and site-specific nature of the social spaces. ‘Social spaces need to be busy and vibrant and students will use social media such as Instagram to communicate their experiences’, he suggests. Changes in use of buildings have allowed developers to site these in central locations allowing students easy access to social and learning hubs and within local community areas.

It is likely that the HE sector will continue to grow over the next few years but has suffered some notable challenges in our Covid times with some negative press at universities’ response to the virus. In terms of general trends and in response to this Sanders suggests ‘Sustainability, wellness and cleanliness’, the latter being a particular concern in our present and immediate future. This is being reflected in diverse ways such as the use of cleanable materials such as fabrics and the integration of sanitiser stations within designs. This is also reflected in respecting the core building finishes such as polished concrete and allowing these to contrast with softer, more tactile finishes.

It is difficult to predict the wider effects of the virus but in the foreseeable future this is likely to continue with greater social distancing and less density particularly in areas such as lecture theatres and studio spaces. This can adversely affect the acoustic properties of the space which is recognised as a key contributor to user wellness (3). The addition of softer finishes in these areas may become more commonplace for acoustics attenuation and reduction of sound transmission. In the longer term I would suggest that we may see the adoption of products from other sectors such as the use of anti-microbial finishes used in healthcare environments. This is a sector which has managed the advantage of soft finishes with the requirements of health and disease control.

Crown HouseCrown House - Sheffield, UK

There can be no doubt that the HE environment has contributed greatly to the success of students and the sector in general over recent years and will continue to meet future challenges. The increased blurring between social and learning spaces appears to be helping students to meet their respective learning and growth aspirations by creating meaningful community places. This can only create a greater sense of wellbeing and preparation for what seems to be an uncertain future.

Author Bio: Stephen Anderson

Stephen has worked as a designer in practice for many years across a wide range of sectors, building types and geographical locations. For many years he was Design Director with BDP, one of the world’s largest integrated design companies, leading a particular focus towards the design of brand environments. More recently he has balanced practice with his academic career as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth. His research interests focus on User Experience, particularly relating to how we map and experience spaces and materials and he has contributed to conference papers on this subject. He is the co- author of two books on design; The Fundamentals of Interior Design with Simon Dodsworth (2015) and Retail Design with Lynne Mesher (2020), both published by Bloomsbury. In addition, he is currently a post - graduate student at the University of Brighton studying Sequential Design and Illustration.


  1. Universities UK, Minding our Future, 2018
  2. Supporting Students with Their Mental Health, CRC Press/Routledge, 2020
  3. WELL Building Standard (v2.0), WELL Building Institute, 2018