Building the Higher Education Sector – A Property Perspective

With the higher education sector one of the most significant property owners and prolific builders of the past decade, for the final in this series of blogs we speak with Mr Kevin Murphy, Executive Director, Facilities Services Division at Deakin University.  Kevin joined Deakin three years ago after an extensive career in the corporate sector which included senior roles at Multiplex Capital and Centro Properties.

By way of introduction can you explain a little about the scope of your current role?

My responsibilities reach across Facilities, Property and Services covering a number of areas at the University – Campus Planning, Capital Projects, Asset Maintenance & Renewal and Space Management. The asset replacement value of the infrastructure is a little over $1 billion with nearly 500,000m2 GFA. A key part of my role is to add value – that is to ensure our physical assets and spaces provide a relevant and enduring experience for students, staff, alumni, partners and friends.

The University has taken this commitment to the campus infrastructure seriously, to give you some sense of the size of the projects, in the last two years the University will have completed about $240m in building developments.

As a relatively new participant in the higher education sector, what differences have you seen compared with the corporate world?

I think it is fair to say that coming in it was quite obvious that the University has all the usual metrics, analysis and feasibility studies you would expect of any organisation with significant capital projects.  Whilst we don’t lose sight of the key focus on teaching, learning and research the University operates in an increasingly commercial environment with the commensurate level of robust review and financial analysis.  

The big difference is the ‘raison d’être’.  In the corporate world it is pretty simple – you are focused on making a return for the owners or shareholders and there is a strong link between the ability to make a return and the rewards for staff.  Universities on the other hand are pretty unique environments – there is a much broader range of stakeholders to engage.  Success in some ways is much more difficult to measure and employees are differently engaged.  It is not to say that the rewards are not there, they are just different.

From your perspective, in terms of property and services what does the future look like?

From a property and facilities perspective that is the big question.  We have to ensure that we are continually looking to the changing pedagogical influences.  Issues like eLearning and the advent of MOOCS, the changing nature of the work environment because of technology (both for students and staff) and of course the impact of possible deregulation of the sector. A key challenge for the facility professional is creating an overall experience on each campus that supports and retains students (the sticky campus).  This is a challenge compared to the past where attendance was a given rather than a choice, so within a more competitive marketplace, there is a greater need for high quality facilities that are efficient, innovative and stand as good examples of cutting edge architecture.   

You have spent some time looking at universities overseas; from a property and facilities perspective how do they compare to Australia?

In the UK in particular many of the infrastructure projects are influenced by land scarcity so they have had to be smart around space utilisation and how you can do more with less.  Overall, particularly in the US and Europe the challenges are basically the same and I think that we are certainly up with global best practice when it comes to space utilisation and campus infrastructure management and development.

We have focused mostly on the big project side of your role, but what about the day to day services function?

Here we have some real opportunities to get smarter about the way we deliver services and integrate them across the whole organisation.  A focus on the little things is vital.  A minor saving on power in one building can add up quickly when multiplied across 270 buildings of the University.  We are also trying to get more sophisticated in terms of how we use data and connect the project and services side to drive efficiency. We manage significant amounts of data, such as scheduling (timetabling) about 5,000 learning activities a week for our students. So whilst there are some significant differences in the higher education facilities arena, it is certainly exciting and stimulating due to the dynamic environment and the very broad spectrum of stakeholders.

About Mr Kevin Murphy

Kevin Murphy originally qualified as a Chartered Surveyor and holds a Bachelor of Science (Hons) and a Master’s degree in Commerce. In 1992 he relocated to Australia from the United Kingdom to work as a property fund manager.

Kevin has held senior roles as a Director with three large listed and unlisted funds and taught real estate investment analysis at RMIT University before being appointed Executive Director, Facilities Services Division at Deakin University in January 2012.

Rohan A. Carr
February 2015

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