Helen Groves says that while universities have great areas where students can work together and interact, they lack spaces to allow quiet immersion in study 


As education architects, our focus for the last 10 years or so has been on creating spaces for interaction and communication. With the emphasis on wellbeing and creating better connections for students and staff, this is exactly what we should have been doing. But now that we’ve created, and continue to create, these great spaces for collaboration, I’ve started to wonder: have we lost the in-depth learning spaces that define many students’ experience of higher education? 

When we go to university, we have the opportunity to take our studies to a new level, focusing more and delving deeper than we ever had the chance to at school. That ability to zoom in and focus is an important part of the university experience, and one I’m afraid we may be neglecting in our current mission to create spaces for social interaction and learning. 

The more we’ve focused on collaboration and breakout spaces, the less we’ve focused on spaces where people can truly immerse themselves and can reach the levels of deep thought that define academic study. 

We’re seeing serious mental health issues at universities, shocking statistics that can’t be ignored, and we need to make sure we’re getting the balance right for their health and wellbeing.

“There has to be a spectrum in design between the welcome, social spaces and the private spaces”

To address the connection and interaction issues, many universities are investing in student centres, a campus “living room”, so to speak. While it’s important for students to have these spaces, it’s also important for them to not feel pressured to constantly be in them. 

For thinking and creativity we need spaces with no distractions and no other people to interrupt our thoughts. We need somewhere to go for quiet and for space to ourselves. In this age of social connectivity, it’s even more important that we have somewhere we can really focus on the task at hand and become completely immersed in our subject matter.

There has to be a spectrum in design between the welcome, social spaces and the private spaces. I think we’ve assumed young people don’t want these spaces, but we need to celebrate that’s it’s okay to want them. It’s okay to be quiet and serious sometimes. 

My challenge to us all, as designers and estates directors, is to bear this in mind when we’re designing higher education buildings and address the full spectrum between the open and closed, social and private, fun and serious.

Students today are under immense pressure to be seen to be succeeding and to succeed. They feel like they need to be part of a group, to fit in. But students also need to know it’s okay to be by yourself, and that reaching new heights of academic, individual study is an important, and celebrated, part of being at university. 

We need to get the balance right between individual, supported, private study and social learning. We need to recognise that designing for wellbeing isn’t just about connected, light, airy spaces – sometimes it’s about creating cocoons for people seeking out spaces where they feel comfortable to study. Over the last decade it’s become increasingly ‘uncool’ to create these individual learning spaces, and we need to challenge that. 

Despite being social animals, we all crave our own space sometimes, and that’s okay. Being alone doesn’t mean being lonely – it can mean having time to think, focus and discover new things about ourselves and the world. 

This dichotomy is what makes university a unique, once in a lifetime experience. We need to ask ourselves: are we doing what’s fashionable or what’s right? And when it comes to students’ health and wellbeing we need to always do what’s right.

Helen Groves is architect director at Atkins