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Interview: The inside track on the University of Manchester’s real estate course for professionals

Mark Shepherd, Real Estate Course Director, Manchester University

We recently interviewed Mark Shepherd, Course Director for the University of Manchester’s MSc Real Estate, to get his views on education, the pandemic and the future of real estate. Here is what he had to say:

  1. Mark, can you please provide a little information about your own background and how you came to be Course Director for the University of Manchester’s MSc Real Estate

I began by studying real estate and land management before going on to do a Masters in computing – I’ve always maintained an interest in the relationship between technology and real estate.

After those degrees, I spent some time in practice, qualifying as a surveyor before returning to the world of academia because I wanted to focus on the nitty gritty – the detail of how things in the industry work.

So, in the early 1990s I took up a teaching post at London’s Southbank University, before working as a lecturer at the University of Salford for 20 years. Here, I led the undergraduate and postgraduate courses in real estate as well as setting up their distance learning programme.

Then the opportunity to move to the University of Manchester (UoM) presented itself. Using the knowledge I had from my previous positions, I joined to set up a blended learning, part-time course pretty much from scratch.

The UoM’s existing real estate Masters were well-established and very successful. But the campus-based courses struggled to reach those already in full-time employment; people in the industry who wanted to complete additional academic courses around their work. That’s why we have since created the blended online MSC Real Estate, which has been up and running since February 2018.

  1. What are the core subjects the course focuses on and why?

The UoM’s blended online MSc Real Estate is what historically would have been called a general practice course. By this, I mean it covers a range of industry disciplines. The course is designed to be relatively broad in the sense that we focus on four main areas: valuation and appraisal, development, management, and investment.

We landed upon those core units because the programme team at UoM, who are still actively involved in practice, understood that this is what the market requires at the moment. The course is designed to best suit the students and the organisations they work for (or would go on to work for).

For example, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) sets certain parameters for the education of real estate students, so we wanted to engage with that while also giving our students the maximum range of opportunities for the areas they might want to go into within the world of real estate.

Students come away understanding the fundamentals of real estate: how it works, how it is developed and managed, how it is valued, who the different players are, how markets function, and what the future of our cities will be. Moreover, students will have firm grasp on real estate’s ever-present role within the private, public and third sectors.

  1. Which types of people is the course suited to?

Ultimately, the course is for anyone looking to change or train up in their career. Being part-time over 24 months and only requiring two trips to the UoM campus each year, it is designed with busy professionals in mind. It enables them to upskill and, particularly during times of uncertainty such as now, puts them in a stronger position for future employment opportunities.

The remote elements of the course give students flexibility. Indeed, we have people completing the course who are based across the UK and in many countries overseas. Meanwhile, the face-to-face parts of the course – the blended part, which comes in the form of a concentrated conference twice a year – gives our students the opportunities to hear from people who work in various sectors of the real estate industry.

At the biannual conferences, students learn about current thinking and new research, ensuring they are up to date on the latest trends and developments. The events also provide valuable networking opportunities and more contact time with the tutors, all-in-all ensuring a more rounded experience.

The fact we have an international student base is another positive. It enables global knowledge sharing – students learn about practice and trends in other parts of the world, which will assist in broadening their knowledge and exposing them to unique processes they might have not been previously aware of.


  1. Shifting the focus to the property sector, what would you identify as the most significant changes the industry has undergone in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?

Many of the changes taking place in the real estate sector in 2020 were already in motion before COVID-19. The pandemic has simply accelerated these trends.

For example, if we look at property valuations, there are some really interesting changes going on. There are far more ‘desktop valuations’ being undertaken, which is traditionally something that has been avoided; even with all the data at people’s disposal, professionals have been hesitant about completing a valuation without being able to physically visit and assess a property.

Interestingly, RICS has also instituted a review of the valuation of property assets for investment purposes because it is aware of the structural shift in investor and occupier demand, something that has been accelerated by COVID-19.

Elsewhere, as is the case with every industry, there are far more video calls within businesses, both between employees and with clients. This is a real challenge. Interactions in a workplace and sharing ideas are extremely important for real estate companies when solving challenges and coming up with new, creative ideas. We must now learn and encourage this same dialogue to take place in a digital setting.

Trends like flexible working were already well established in the commercial real estate sector. But, again, the pandemic has sped up the pace of change.

In the future, I anticipate organisations will have fewer desks in their offices. However, there may be a greater emphasis on having more space for collaboration, meetings and communications, which are all things that are harder to achieve while remote working. So, organisations might still occupy the same amount of commercial space, but what the space looks like could be very different in the years to come.

  1. What do you think will be the lasting effect of COVID-19 on residential and commercial real estate?

In truth, it is still too early to tell what the long-term implications will be for the real estate sector. From retail and hospitality to office space and residential properties, it is difficult to tell if, or when, things will return to normal.

Take the hospitality sector. Social distancing measures might actually mean that restaurants invest in larger venues, enabling them to seat more diners. However, the profit per square metre would be reduced. This would have significant knock-on effects on investors, landlords and commercial tenants.

In the residential sector, over recent months we have already seen increased demand for properties with additional rooms because people are now working from home and want a dedicated workspace.

Similarly, there has been an increase in the number of buyers and renters considering moving out of cities in order to have access to more outdoor space, whether that is their own garden or parks nearby. So, we could see a rebalancing in the valuation of properties in urban versus rural areas in the years to come.

There are so many factors at play across the commercial and residential sectors that I’d be hesitant making any bold predictions for the future. For now, we have to take a step back and watch how things develop.


  1. How valuable are academic courses in enabling real estate professionals to stay abreast of important trends in the sector?

Fundamentally, the major appeal of academic courses is professional development and creating new opportunities. This is particularly true in the current environment.

Certain promotions or job roles might only become available to people with particular qualifications, and COVID-19 has made the job market more competitive in general. Having RICS-accredited qualifications on their CVs gives graduates greater authority and a respected stamp of approval, either when searching for employment opportunities or when dealing with clients.

Staying abreast of the latest industry developments is certainly important, too. Real estate professionals must be able to respond to change; there is the old acronym VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – and as 2020 has proven, students must be able to react in times of upheaval. Academic training and practice-focused courses like ours give them the core skills and experience to do so.

  1. Has COVID-19 heightened the appeal of blended learning courses?

Yes, without question. During times of uncertainty and change, people step back and consider if they are where they want to be in their lives. In turn, courses like ours receive greater attention – people who want a new career, along with those already working in real estate but wanting to move upwards or into new areas, embark on academic courses that can open new doors to them.

Of course, the pandemic has also made blended courses, which are heavily centred on remote learning, more popular. People can work at their own pace and around their existing commitments. And they can also complete much of the course from their own home, which is important due to travel restrictions and fears surrounding the spread of the virus.

We are also seeing that many employers are supportive of staff completing courses like ours in the current climate. They see it as an opportunity for their team to learn from people with industry experience and develop new skills that will then benefit both the individual and their business.


If you would like to find out more about the course click here

Real Estate Course, Manchester University