Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Universities - empty vessels

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.

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17 Comments:

Blogger Rob Spence said...

I was at the university where I work today. Large groups of schoolchildren were involved in activities led by our students and widening access teams as part of the Aim Higherr project. The sports field was being used for a local school sports day. I went to the gym, which was full of local residents, many of whom had been referred by their GP. Our Fastrack programme, which prepares non-traditional students for entry to HE, was in full swing. A conference for Healthcare professionals was in full swing. Indeed, the Health faculty was full of students whose courses start every three months through the year.
Three major academic events will happen next week, as well as many other regular events that happen through the year, including our programmme of theatre, music and comedy events. Over the summer,, conferences, sports camps and other community activities will take place.
During the academic year, room use is over 90%, as I know from bitter experience when I have tried to find an extra room. We regularly hold classes in the evenings, too.
The scenario you describe might well apply at some of the ancient institutions, but I would imagine that the situation I have described above is far more common in today's modern universities.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Just not my experience Rob. The <25% occupany figure was from the Vice Chancellor of a London University. Looking at Universities in the round the distribution wil have some like yours, but, I suspect, the majority as I described.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Rob Spence said...

Sorry about the errors and infelicities in my previous comment. Should have proof-read before submission!
I'm sure most universities could improve in the ways they involve the community (to take up a theme of a previous post) but I also think most of them are making genuine efforts to do so, not least because we are constantly being entreated to by the government. Oh, and it's the same government which is also cutting funding to universities, so that some of these community initiatives will inevitably be dumped.
I really find the 25% usage figure difficult to believe, and I would agree that if a university genuinely didn't use 75% of its space it would be scandalous.
Many universities, including mine, have abandoned the three term year and instead use two semesters. Granted, there is a long summer break, but, as I tried to suggest in the previous comment, a lot of activity continues through the summer. I too have been to Dartmouth, not as a student, but as a tourist. In August, the town was lively enough, though hardly buzzing. I visited the campus, where there were certainly some students about, but nothing like the thousands on roll. This was in the late nineties, so maybe things have changed.
Capital spend has never, in my experience, been departmental. As a head of English in a university dept three years ago, the money at my disposal was about a quarter of what I had as a head of English in a comprehensive school in 1989- and I'm not adjusting for inflation there. Where I work, about £20 million has been spent on new buildings in the last few years, including a state of the art award-winning building with numerous eco-friendly features designed to lessen its carbon footprint. Believe me, they aren't going to leave projects like that in the hands of academic departments- and rightly so.
I also think you are wide of the mark about academics and the time they spend on campus- and I wonder about the rather cheap shot about academics living away from campus. I readily admit I'm one of them, and it's partly the way my life has turned out, and partly because I couldn't afford to live where I work. If I worked in London, or Cambridge, say, and was a young academic on around £30k, I wonder how I'd manage. As it is, I'm up most days at 6 to travel 40 miles to my place of work, and I'm at my desk at 8.
You do tend to use a broad brush in your polemics. The university sector, like most others I suppose, is very diverse. I'm sure the picture you paint may be true in some cases, but it's not one I recognise from my experience. If I were to write about learning consultants, I might use as an exemplar someone I know who had a meteoric rise through the university ranks, ending as a head of faculty in a well-known university. When that faculty closed (cuts again!) she became a consultant. Now, she is the dullest, most uninspiring, out-of-date, self-regarding, lazy, generally useless colleague it's ever been my misfortune to work with. Would it be fair to use her as a model for educational consultants?

10:13 PM  
Blogger Peter O'Donnell said...

I think your analysis is superficial and very naive. I'm not saying Universities are brilliantly run, some are and many aren't. Universities have a complex role to play and that shouldn't be measured simplistic analysis of land use!

For example, your arguments about Universities being "departmentalised" ignores the reasons for this - which are actually very important and stem from protection of academic freedom and protection of speech. The "cost" of having such a departmental - or rather discipline focus - is high but the benefits are far greater and central to the mission of a University.

The corridors of my campus are empty a lot of the time, but they are over flowing a lot of the time too. Providing an office - a real office, with a door that shuts, not just a time shared partition space - is a very important factor in the productivity of knowledge workers like academics (Read Demarco's Peopleware). If every academic has an office - but doesn't spend all their time in it, and most are very mobile even when on campus - then that will give the impression of there being lots of space and wasted money. I think its money and space well spent.

2:59 AM  
OpenID mark said...

Part of the problem, at least here in Australia, is that government funding of universities has been heavily skewed towards new buildings and capital works. This seems misguided when universities are crying out for improved funding for more and better staff so as to provide better education to more students (and make better use of existing facilities).

4:48 AM  
Anonymous Bob harrison said...

Well I am with donald on this....I visit many schools,colleges and universities and am convinced we could have "twice as much learning in half as many buildings".

Whilst the examples from Rob et al of community use is all very nice the question surely should be about value for money and primary purpose? i tunes university anyone?

10:14 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Stiff defence of the University system and some agreeing with me.

As I say in my post, I have visited a large number of Universities and made, in my post, a direct comparison between two I actually attended, one a year-round institution, the other not, so I don’t see myself as being blindly critical. I really have been in an awful lot of empty buildings and unused lecture theatres in my time.

As for empty campuses, this is largely a function of large scale closures to learners for large periods throughout the year. This inflexibility in working practices by definition, means huge inefficiencies in throughput and utilisation. I’m certainly not convinced that it’s a ‘freedom of speech’ issue.

We have tens of thousands of qualified students looking for places this year and changing the academic year to a semester system would solve it in one stroke. We’re letting down young people by holding on to old practices and timetables.

I don't want to knock the people and instititions who are on the edge of the distribution curve here, but the figure I acquired from the Vice Chancellor would suggest that the majority of UK Universities have very low utilisation rates.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Rob Spence said...

I agree about semesterisation, and most universities I know now operate a semesterised system. Interestingly, the summer use of buildings and resources in America is based on an agreement that academic staff are paid extra for the summer teaching. Their unions negotiated on the basis that their payment was for a two-semester teaching year, and so anything above that would attract extra pay. I can't see English universities agreeing to that.
I repeat that, if the room use stats you quote are true, that is scandalous.
I'm less convinced about Bob's plea for iTunes U. I think ITunes U is a great idea, and indeed I'm trying to get my university to put material on there- but I still think that learning happens best in the living, spontaneous transaction between people meeting "live" - and you need buildings for that to happen.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Paying people exra would be fine as the whole system would be more financially productive. The buildings have fixed costs so extra students would more than pay for the extra staff salaries.

I do disagree on the 'live' premise. The OU has more students than any other Univesrity in the UK but fewest students on campus. Learndirect has also put through 2.6 million learners online. Being in a 'live' context isn't a necessary condition for learning.

The 'old' university is a live experience may be a ,uxury (for the monority) that we may have to rethink.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Rob Spence said...

I'm sure the pay would be no problem for the academics, but it would be for the paymasters, I think, since money for HE is effectively shrinking right now (e.g. built-in assumptions about efficiency savings). Also, the govt has put a cap on the numbers of students, so there would not necessarily be additional numbers.
I agree that for learning to happen there doesn't have to be a "live" exchange. I would question the efficiency of the OU- I've worked for the OU, and I really can't see that having a dozen people phone you up to answer their fairly basic questions on course material is an efficient use of my or their time. A one hour class (virtual or real) would cover it.
Your use of the formula "put through" is revealing too, suggesting a kind of production line metaphor. I don't see a university education in those terms, and I suspect it's in this area that we fundamentally disagree. Much of what learndirect does isn't at HE level, so I'm not sure it's a appropriate comparison to make.

7:21 AM  
Anonymous Andy Tedd said...

Based on my observations at Bournemouth, and my own experience, erm a while ago, I dont find much to disgree with here.

When you are 21 there are much better things to be doing with you life than sitting in a lecture theatre. You can read books when you are old, like me.

If we really wanted them to attend more just send them to work for a few years before uni - that would do the trick :) Nothing exciting or useful like the army mind - some really miserable and pointless suit job so they understand how lucky they are.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Rob
The OU is badly run (fiscally) but the model is fundamentally sound. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people, who didn't want, and didn't need, the campus/drinking/social side of University, were franchised into HE is extraordinary.

I do agree that Gov policy is all over the place, but there are signs that innovative thinking is being considered, if not implemented. I'm thinking of the OU University as an alternative for the many who don't get places, dropping fees for local; students and so on. I think that year round Universities would actually pay for themselves with more paying students getting their degrees faster.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Donald, Get off your high horse and go back to school. You insult teachers and teaching but your experiences are almost forty years out of date (or they come second hand from your own children).

No teacher who teaches in the way you claim teachers teach would survive in today's climate. When was the last time you spent time in a 'real' school to see what teaching young people is really about? I think you'd get a pleasant surprise. We do not all stand at the front of the classroom, lecturing. Nowadays the majority of lessons include a range of activites and give students the opportunity to contribute in a variety of different ways.
DO NOT blame the teachers for the deficiencies in the education system.
Yes, many pupils 'fail' their exams and don't meet government targets. But this is only half the story. The majority of these 'failures' will go on to have happy, fullfilling and successful lives - unless of course they end up working in an IT or call centre- because apart from preparing them for exams, school has also prepared them for life in the outside world, a world where they are social beings and part of a community.

There is, and never will be, enough money in the state system to provide all that is required so why waste it on information technology that only serves to separate children from whatis important - people! Huge amounts of government money have been wasted on information and communication technology that is just not needed ... mmm, it seems to me that the computer suppliers have rather a lot of influence over government funds.
Go and see for yourself!

2:21 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

What's this got to do with Universities? Why the anonymity?

I have been in schools recently, witnessed lessons, and no I don't blame teachers for all the ills in the system. However, if I do feel that bad teacher training, over-reliance on the classroom model, poor practice and bad teaching exist. Teachers are not to blame for everything, but neither do they have automatic immunity from criticism.

You're the one on the high horse. I would have hoped that someone in the learning profession would be a little more open to learning, or at least listening, to the views of others.

As for your views on failure, I have to disagree. School doesn't make these people successful - they often despise the time they spent at school. That's where many experienced failure and were made to feel like failures.

Technology is not the entire answer but it may be part of the solution. Open your mind a little. Books, pens, blackboards are all pieces of technology.Don't you have a radio or TV, fridge, washing machine, phone, car? Technology enhances lives. What your really don't like is anything that's 'new' technology. Doesn't it seem strange to you that you've communicated to me, albeit anonymously, through a keyboard, across the web, on a blog?

6:28 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

What's this got to do with Universities? Why the anonymity?

I have been in schools recently, witnessed lessons, and no I don't blame teachers for all the ills in the system. However, if I do feel that bad teacher training, over-reliance on the classroom model, poor practice and bad teaching exist. Teachers are not to blame for everything, but neither do they have automatic immunity from criticism.

You're the one on the high horse. I would have hoped that someone in the learning profession would be a little more open to learning, or at least listening, to the views of others.

As for your views on failure, I have to disagree. School doesn't make these people successful - they often despise the time they spent at school. That's where many experienced failure and were made to feel like failures.

Technology is not the entire answer but it may be part of the solution. Open your mind a little. Books, pens, blackboards are all pieces of technology.Don't you have a radio or TV, fridge, washing machine, phone, car? Technology enhances lives. What your really don't like is anything that's 'new' technology. Doesn't it seem strange to you that you've communicated to me, albeit anonymously, through a keyboard, across the web, on a blog?

6:37 PM  
Blogger C to the J said...

Hi, I am a current student from Dartmouth. I am looking at your blog and am wondering whether you are the Don Clark who graduated in 1973 and has work with USAID?

3:35 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Sorry. Not me.

9:09 AM  

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