Archive for June 23, 2011

Ex Officio

Posted in Education, Finance on June 23, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been remarkably subdued and rant-free these days – partly because I’ve been too engaged with other things. However, I just came across a story in the Times Higher which put me in the mood for a short diatribe.

It seems that the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE) has published a report entitled “Performance in Higher Education” which looks into university estates management. Among other things, this report states that in English universities academics are assigned an average of 13.2 sq m of office space per person, Scottish institutions offer 14.5 sq m, and Welsh universities a “whopping” 15.7 sq m. By contrast the average office space per person across all sectors in the UK 10-12 sq m.

The conclusion is that

The enduring perception of an office as a status symbol has contributed to the higher education sector lagging behind nearly all others in the efficient use of space.

An interesting inference, this, especially as it gives no definition of what is meant by “efficient”. Note also that it resorts to the pure cliché of the office as status symbol without a shred of evidence to support this as an explanation of alleged inefficiency. I have quite a large office – it seems Welsh universities are generous in this regard – but I don’t see it as a status symbol at all. It just means I use it for more things.

For one thing, I use my office for research. I can’t speak for anyone else but for me that means having a space to myself, free from distractions, for thinking. My room also contains many books and research papers that I use for both teaching and research. I also hold tutorials and discussion group meetings for which the large whiteboard is essential (although I would have preferred an old-fashioned blackboard). On occasion I also have private meetings with students and other staff at which confidential matters can be discussed in private.

Given the variety of activities carried out in a space which is only fractionally larger than the national norm, I would be quite confident of making a case that universities -or at least those that do both research and teaching –  already use their space more efficiently than other sectors.

And another thing. Many of us work in old buildings. Mine is a hundred years old. Converting it to an open plan environment would cost a fortune. Perhaps in order to effect the “cultural change” HEFCE desires universities should knock down the old buildings and put up brand new, smaller ones, with open plan offices? Pity in that case that capital funding has been slashed.

The HEFCE report states that “other sectors have … embraced a more open-plan scenario”. That may be the case, but other sectors are not universities and they don’t do the range of things we do. How am I supposed to hold tutorials in an open-plan office? And how would I be expected to do research with chit-chat going on all around?

Managers will probably argue that we could have dedicated rooms that could be booked for tutorials, etc. Fine. So we would have to decamp from our (small) offices to a bare cell with a group of students. If something comes up that makes me want to refer to a book or paper, I couldn’t pop over to my bookshelf and get it, I’d have to come back to my office. Or just not bother. There’d also be no space for impromptu meetings. No room for books either, but who needs them? Most university libraries don’t bother with them any more so why should staff?

I know exactly what would happen if these measures were introduced. First, academics would have to do their research at home. Opportunities for interaction between staff members, and between staff and students, would be greatly diminished. Students would no longer feel that the staff were accessible for advice and discussions, greatly diminishing the student experience. The impact on research would be extremely negative, as would be the effect on staff morale.

But who cares about teaching or research? It would be more efficient.


The Cloud

Posted in Poetry with tags , on June 23, 2011 by telescoper

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning, my pilot, sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;

Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,
Its ardors of rest and of love,

And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine aery nest,
As still as a brooding dove.
That orbed maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till the calm rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,–
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,
Is the million-colored bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colors wove,
While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).