UCEM’s Aled Williams chairs latest Council of Heads of Built Environment seminar

Posted on: 22 February, 2024

By Nick Perkins, Public Affairs Manager at UCEM

As part of achieving UCEM’s strategic goal of becoming the centre of excellence for built environment education, we are always keen to demonstrate our thought leadership, influence and commitment to collaboration. This allows our institutional expertise to positively impact both the built environment and higher education sectors. In turn, this also ensures we are kept updated with the latest developments enriching the student learning experience.

This collaboration can take many forms, such as advising the various professional institutions on how they can embed sustainability literacy in schemes of professional qualification or convening our fellow universities to share best practices.

Our cooperation with other higher education providers can include activities such as co-hosting international conferences but is often in the UK’s higher education sector.

One such example of this is our involvement with the ‘Council of Heads of the Built Environment’ (better known by its acronym ‘CHOBE’) a body comprised of Heads of Schools/Departments in UK universities responsible for research, knowledge transfer and learning in the fields of construction, property and surveying.

Members of the UCEM team were present at CHOBE’s latest seminar, ‘Collaborative Futures: Practice, Professions & Pedagogy’. The event delved into the shifting landscape of higher education and its impact on future learning, technological progress, as well as changing student and industry expectations.

Authentic and industry-relevant assessment

UCEM’s Dean of the School of the Built Environment, Cathy Higgs, and Ruth Grindey, UCEM’s Director of Learning & Digital Engagement, delivered a workshop on how universities can effectively assess student understanding of learning in the emerging age of artificial intelligence, as well as how to engender learners with an understanding of generative AI tools and their place in the built environment.

They noted that, as the industry hasn’t fully conceptualised the utility of AI, or is only doing so very privately, it is hard for higher education institutions to update their curricula appropriately, although the rise of generative AI will likely see more experiential and problem-based learning.

This will require academics to be given more autonomy to change assessment frameworks, particularly as the ubiquitousness of AI tools could potentially upend traditional pedagogic approaches. For example, UCEM is beginning to incorporate exercises where students are given a predefined prompt for AI and then assessed on how well they critique the generated response, which is an inversion of the normal means of assessing students by asking them to generate an essay and then have a teacher critique that.

Prof Nick Morton and Dr Roy Priest from Birmingham City University then presented how, in an ever-evolving sector, universities could ensure that graduates are work-ready by including industry and employers in course design. They suggested that built environment higher education institutions should seek industry input on individual modules, ask for suggestions on what dissertation topics students could undertake and focus on instilling students with more practical competencies by taking a cue from the delivery of degree apprenticeships.

Working together to deliver a sustainable transition

The core of the seminar was made up of several sessions looking at how cross-disciplinary collaboration could help the sector both meet its skills gap and deliver a just transition to a sustainable future.

Dr Janet Young, Director General and Secretary at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), described how ICE is guiding their professional community towards methodologies that incorporate working with other built environment experts, such as planners and biodiversity specialists. This results in projects having a holistic vision of how to transform the public realm that goes beyond merely fixing an immediate civil engineering problem.

Dr Young explained how this was increasingly leading civil engineering projects to adopt a ‘lower build’ strategy, whereby nature-based solutions were utilised, in preference to more traditional ‘hard infrastructure’, citing the example of flood defences in Crosby, Cumbria.

An interdisciplinary future for innovation

Dr Wei Yang, Chair of the Construction Industry Council (CIC), then explored how built environment education needed to become more interdisciplinary so that our approach to tackling grand challenges, namely mitigating the impacts of climate change and achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, becomes people-centric and placed-based, rather than being from the perspective of any single built environment specialism.

Noting how there is little evidence that the built environment industry is truly adapting to the impacts of climate change, Dr Yang contended that it was people rather than technology that drove innovation and so education providers should empower students with the power to innovate. She also observed that education was not merely about younger students, but that professional qualification requirements are in the process of being substantially revised to focus on environmental performance and that the sector will have to take part in comprehensive CPD for net zero delivery.

Find out more about UCEM’s Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments MSc

Modernising professional training

Mark Farmer, author of the government-commissioned ‘Modernise or Die – Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model, updated attendees on the state of the sector’s workforce.

He observed that the sector was losing the war for talent taking a smaller percentage of a growing workforce. Circa 8.7% of workers were employed in construction in 2008, compared with circa 6.6% in 2023, driven by factors such as those in the sector being older (twice as many people over 35 than under).

However, Mark agreed with Dr Young and Dr Yang that, far from just being a case of workforce gaps, there was also a skills gap which needed to be filled to enable a sustainable built environment sector. These skills gaps, he argued, could only be filled if we were prepared to transition away from the traditional model of instilling deep competency in a very narrow subject matter.

Instead, educators should provide multi-disciplinary and integrated academic learning, incorporating links to future-facing practices. Moreover, professional bodies need to make their initial assessment criteria, ongoing certification of competence and lifelong learning standards more rounded. An example in this regard is the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) which now mandates CPD in specific core curriculum topics such as sustainable architecture, health, safety and wellbeing.

Educating across specialisms

The speakers were joined by Prof David Proverbs, University of Wolverhampton and Dr Gerard Wood, University of Salford for a panel discussion on how built environment educators, industry and professional bodies could attract people into the sector and then imbue them with the competencies to be both productive and cognisant of the built environment’s role in a sustainable future.

Panellists touched upon how built environment learning could be made more interdisciplinary. Dr Wood explained how students at the University of Salford were set team projects with students from other built environment disciplines, based on industry case studies.

Prof Proverbs acknowledged that working across academic specialisms was difficult, noting that doing so was aided by things such as new campus facilities and buildings being designed to foster routine interactions between academics from different specialities.

The seminar was led by UCEM’s Executive Director of Innovation and Partnerships, Aled Williams, who is also CHOBE’s Chair. He commented:

My sincere thanks to all who contributed to the seminar, especially to my UCEM colleagues Cathy and Ruth for their insightful workshop. The event also marked a milestone for CHOBE as it is now 20 years since we were founded to support those with strategic responsibility for the development of built environment education. I hope today’s event continued this by enhancing collaboration between industry and higher education to shape a more productive, innovative and sustainable sector.”