Ex Officio

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.


26 Responses to “Ex Officio”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes it’s drivel isn’t it?!

    I went into curmudgeon mode when the Isaac Newton Institute opened in Cambridge, with 2 persons sharing each office, by saying publicly that theoretical physicists/mathematicians need their own offices – however small – since their job is to THINK, which you can’t do with somebody else around. But having offices the size of shoeboxes would have looked embarrassing even if there were twice as many, so it got built the way it is.

  2. Garret Cotter Says:

    Argh, mine’s only 7.5 m^2. Where’s my sports car…

    Cosy as it is, though, if I had to swap it for a cubicle, I’d just spend most of my time at home. Maybe that’s what “they” want? Rant endorsed.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t have a car at all, “sports” or otherwise…

      …but possession of a sports car and insistence on having the biggest office is part of a behaviour pattern I have observed.

    • telescoper Says:

      Actually my office is notable for its high ceiling. I’m thinking of having a mezzanine floor put in.

      • Garret Cotter Says:

        Oh, dress circle, surley. Or at least save the space for an elaborate chandelier.

        I suppose if I had the space I would protect it for future generations by setting up a solera…

  3. telescoper Says:

    I shared an office when I was a PhD student and then as aPDRA. I didn’t find it easy, but most PDRAs do these days have some form of open-plan space to work in.

    I guess it depends what you have to do there, i.e. whether it’s deep analytical thinking or fairly routine data reduction probably makes a difference to whether people find it bearable. It probably also depends on how quiet your neighbours are and whether they get a lot of visitors/phone calls.

    My little group in Cardiff consists of a PDRA and 3 PhD students who all share the same office. Perhaps one or more of them would like to comment if they’re reading this?

    • how about fairly routine factorisation, differentiation or integration? doesn’t much of your “deep analytical thinking” just breakdown into a series of fairly routine activities?

      we should give you a mundane CTE problem to identify and solve on ACS or the effect of sagging of the WHT prime focus on image shape.

      …anyway – enough reflected rant – the question i was going to ask was how much of the “stuff” in your office do you actually use? i’ve got a filing cabinet of papers from the ’90s which was useful then (e.g. before ADS) but which i access probably once a year. similarly those piles of PATT/AGP/etc applications burdening my shelves only serve to make the place look lived-in – rather than actually being useful (i guess they remain because of the effort of having them shredded).

    • telescoper Says:

      For routine mathematical activities we have things like Mathematica. The difficult part is thinking about a problem to see how to break it down like that, or even to phrase it in appropriate mathematical language…

      …and I’m perfectly well aware that most data analysis problems are not at all “routine”.

      I don’t keep many old papers in my office – I threw all those out ages ago now that we have ADS. But I do have piles of papers relevant to things I’m working on now. I do use my books a lot for obscure bits of theory; my office library is fairly extensive, but I also have a lot of books at home. I have two filing cabinets for departmental stuff (I’m Director of Postgraduate Studies) and University bumph. Plus boxes of old teaching stuff which I’ve kept in case I ever have to teach similar courses again.

  4. Chris North Says:

    I believe the confidentiality is the main reason faculty are given individual offices, as well as the “seniority” aspect, as all your other arguments apply equally to postdocs. I think the argument that research simply can’t be done in a shared office is not necessarily true – providing the other occupants can tell when you’re in a “shut up, I’m thinking” mode. I may not be a theoretical physicist, but I like to believe that do my fair share of thinking from time to time. In fact, working with other people is often very beneficial for work – one of the reasons for PhD students sharing offices.

    I personally like having a few people in the same office as me, though when someone is on conference call (with or without video!) – which we all do from time to time as we’re all part of bigger collaborations – the rest of us have to talk in slightly hushed voices. In fact I think if I had an office on my own I’d go a little mad. Perhaps that’s one reason why we don’t frequent the coffee areas as often as those who have their own offices (plus the fact we have a kettle in the room over the corridor).

    Postdocs also do teaching, it’s just that we have to leave our offices to find a whiteboard big enough – we just have to move the textbooks around a bit…

    I guess the other argument is that faculty (in general) do more teaching and have more meetings, and so need suitable spaces close at hand, which for the most part (in our department at least) seems to be justified. That and the confidentiality are the biggest arguments – if the other reasons are used they should be applied to researchers at all levels.

    • telescoper Says:

      Confidentiality is a good point, but another is that the longer you’ve been around the more things you accumulate of different kinds. Physical things – books, notes, etc – but also other different kinds of jobs, especially administrative ones as well as teaching.

      I realise that there would be chaos at Cardiff if we just had a few tutorial rooms, because all our 1st year tutorials are in the same timetable slot!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Chris: Professional interactions and talking your research over with people is a vital part of the research process. But the real thinking which we all have to do (I didn’t mean that experimentalists don’t think, I meant that theoreticians do it exclusively!) is surely done in solitude. Solitude is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

  5. telescoper Says:

    On reflection I think the main point is that an office full of people who are all doing basically similar things is probably more workable than one in which the inhabitants are doing a large range of things. If I were sharing an office with several other academics it would probably be OK if they were all doing the same kind of research as me and that’s al that they were doing. If, on the other hand, one needed to do a telecon, another was interviewing a prospective PhD student, one was having a project supervision and the other was on the 4th page of a lengthly mathematical calculation, I don’t think it would be successful.

  6. When I was at Yerkes I had 2 rooms for my office. The first had been Bob O’Dell’s old office (although probably not when he was Director). After about a year of my being there, the office next to mine became vacant; so I spread into it and put enough of my stuff in it that nobody tried to get me back into one room.

    I’ve lectured at 5 universities and the only one where I didn’t have my own office was that so called university – Glamorgan. There, I shared an office with one other person. I do feel this inhibited students from coming to talk to me about sensitive issues, and I couldn’t hold tutorials in my office. I have always encouraged students to come and ask me questions if they’ve had any problems with course material, so have usually had a steady trickle of students coming to my office in addition to regular weekly tutorials. This is all inhibited in a shared office environment.

    And, even non theoreticians need to do some quiet thinking now and again, which can be hard in a shared office. During my PhD my shared office environment proved invaluable to me as I was able to get help and guidance from a post doc in my room. As a post doc, I’d like to think I gave some to the PhD students with whom I shared an office.

    Now I share an office with Mike Disney, and if ever there were an argument for not sharing offices, that would be it 🙂

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      May I correct Rhodri on one minor point? The very experienced researcher Rhodri shared an office with during his PhD studies was a Royal Society University Research Fellow, not a postdoc.

      That talented individual may have been treated like a postdoc by the professor, but was actually a research fellow. It is a comment on the professor that a person who held a fellowship for independent research was treated like a postdoc.

      • Bryn, to be totally correct, the person to whom we are both referring was a post-doc when I started my PhD, then he became a RS Research Fellow a year or two into my PhD. But he continued to share an office with me and other PhD students (and a PhD student who became a post doc).

        Shall we run a sweep as to who this person was/is? 🙂

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I stand corrected (partly!).

        It might be safer not to mention who he (the professor) was/is.

  7. My office is always a bit untidy so I’ve always opted for a small room, despite my “status” as a senior academic. Why make a big mess when a small one is possible ??.

    As has been mentioned, there is a lot an academic does which requires me to have some space to call my own. Research, tutorials, confidential meetings with students, online research meetings etc. I don’t see the benefit in sharing.

    If one wishes to save money then the obvious place to start is by cutting down on commissioning reports which illustrate only that HEFCE doesn’t understand how research and teaching works. HEFCE should learn that well run departments and research groups are best placed to decide when its best to share and when not to. Like many others which HEFCE sticks its nose into, this is not a top-down issue.

    When it comes to wasting money, HEFCE could look at its effective funding of courses in, eg, alternative medicine.

  8. telescoper Says:

    Perhaps the cuts to PDRA funding will have the effect that each PDRA will indeed be able to have their own office.

  9. I just read the article. Wow. If the date were 1 April, I could appreciate it. Clearly, writing such reports is a much bigger waste than the “wasted” office space.

  10. telescoper Says:

    University “Estates” departments are curious beasts. They seem obsessed with creating new buildings at the expense of taking care of old ones.

    I chair the Environmental Group in my department, and it’s clear we waste a huge amount of energy heating the building because the windows are old, single-glazed, often cracked, and have badly fitting frames. In the winter I have to turn the heating on full to counter the icy draft coming from my (large) windows. However, the University is unwilling to spend anything on putting double-glazing in despite the fact that the cost would be recouped in a few years at most. On the other hand, like most Universities, the past few years have seen new buildings popping up all over the place….

    • they’re in the process of installing the final double-glazing here at durham – so you should keep on trying at cardiff… but i assume you mostly spend your time worrying about the power usage from workstations?

      and i’ve just “wasted” 2 minutes of productive time estimating the size of my office… which comes out at 12 sq m. its an unfortunate size: its not big enough to hold tutorials in (or to have a meeting area) but its a little bigger than one person needs… as shown by the fact that we’ve got a fair number of faculty who are sharing offices this size… (including some professors).

  11. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ve tried my best to avoid joining in the discussion for fear of it turning into a rant, not just about university management but also about hierarchies within departments and the space (and facilities) given to senior academics.

    I’ll just say that the most difficult office problem I experienced was as a postdoc in a large office shared with a large number of PhD students and postdocs, while having to look after the interests of undergraduate students in tutorial groups. Finding empty rooms for tutorials is not easy, and having to find empty rooms to deal with the personal problems of undergraduate students when a student (very reasonably) comes to a shared office without a prior appointment is difficult.

    Perhaps the pastoral care of students should be looked after only by staff who have an office to themselves, regardless of the status of the staff member.

    • Maybe university admin people and/or HEFCE would prefer students not to have any pastoral care.

      I just *hope* HEFCW does not waste its time doing a similarly pointless exercise.

  12. […] about this I was reminded of an old post I wrote in 2011 about office space many years ago in response to the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE) […]

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