I’ve been into dozens of Universities over the years, mainly to give talks and lectures, and it never fails to amaze me how empty they are. It’s as if they were test sites for neutron bombs. At one in June, I wandered into three buildings before I could find a living soul who could who could give me directions. The problem is obvious; most of these buildings seem empty because they are empty, most of the time.
Empty and expensive
In fact, even the best rarely reach 25% occupancy per year. University campuses must be the among the most inefficient uses of land and real estate imaginable. Buildings take up valuable land, use utilities such as energy ,water and telecoms and require cleaning, even when empty. They are also, year on year, falling apart, requiring regular physical maintenance Then there’s the administrative costs. It’s all about utilisation. No one in their right mind would design such an inefficient misuse of resources in any other area of human endeavour.
Crops, calendars and capital spend
The problem is the agricultural calendar, but it goes well beyond this. Departmental protectionism demands separate buildings for every department and little in the way of shared resources. On top of all this is the tendency to build to this departmental model, rather than use technology and shared space to encourage cross-disciplinary interaction. The capital spend is departmental and therefore deplorably inefficient. There are notable counter-examples but they are rare. In my home town we have two Universities (U of Brighton and U of Sussex) on the same road but they’d never dream of sharing libraries or anything else for that matter.
Dartmouth as model
I’m rather glad that the Sixth Form and College building programmes have fallen through due to a lack of cash. This will force those institutions to think about the more flexible use of their buildings. This means more use of technology, learning at a distance and sharing. I attended a UK University (Edinburgh) and a US Ivy League University (Dartmouth), and the contrast was startling. Dartmouth has a sophisticated D-plan or semester schedule giving students choices across the entire year. The place was never empty.
OU as model
There is another model here – the OU, perhaps the greatest educational achievement in 20th century Britain. It has the greatest number of students in the UK but the fewest on campus. Why? Because of its use of technology and novel models for teaching and learning. Have other institutions learnt from this? Have they hell.
Universities run for academics not students
Many academics spend very little time at their universities. Some live so far away that it would be impractical. If I decide to do a course at university in October, I have to wait 11 months to start. In this age of on-demand, timeshifted experience, they’re an anachronism. That they have the cheek to offer MBA courses on organisational issues is a disgrace and then they have the further cheek to demand increases in funding which they squander on what - emptiness.