Security limits tutor access

January 4, 2008

Students complain that swipe-card entry at Manchester's new building prevents them getting on to lecturers' floors. Rebecca Attwood reports.

Students have complained that academics are locked away in a "tutor zoo" at a new £31.5 million building at Manchester University.

With a swipe-card system restricting undergraduates' access to the ground floor of the Arthur Lewis Building, students have taken umbrage at the fact that they can no longer simply knock on their lecturers' doors but must book appointments online or by phone in advance.

In a move reflecting a national increase in demands by fee-paying students for unfettered access to their tutors, more than 400 Manchester undergraduates have joined a Facebook group set up in protest at security arrangements at the building. Posted comments have accused the university of locking professors away from students in an effort to boost research.

The Facebook group describes itself as "a group for everyone who would prefer that contact with their lecturers was not mediated through a locked door and a convoluted booking system ... for those who would like their university to treat them as more than just a number, a bank balance and a minor triviality in the march towards 'excellence'."

The group accuses the university of having "increasing disregard for student interests". One message, posted near the start of term, says: "I had to see my tutor the other day. Directed upstairs and then having to phone my tutor's office, he then came out and led me through all the layer's (sic) of defense (sic) and then through the tutor zoo where they're all locked up their (sic) on research. Even my tutor noted the security doors and restricted access was 'ridiculous'."

Manchester academics have told The Times Higher that the online booking system does not work, with some concerned that filling in and responding to requests could take up more time than dealing with students knocking on the door.

Meanwhile, redundancies among administrative staff mean that Manchester academics are having to take on more administrative duties, lecturers have said.

Last month, The Times Higher reported that of 551 voluntary redundancies in 2007 at Manchester, 89 per cent were among administrative, clerical, library or manual staff.

One academic, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "It isn't really true that we're locked up in our offices producing more research. We now also have to record attendance details for our classes in an online system that doesn't work too well and cover other administrative functions that used to be done by our downsized secretarial and administrative infrastructure. We even have a keypad on the toilet door, apparently to exclude students.

"Most staff feel as frustrated as students do by the new regime, since we are spending more and more of our time apologising to students for our institution and feeding ineffective systems of virtual student administration, so everyone loses except the top management driving these so-called reforms."

Other lecturers said the building was an improvement on their old accommodation. Some said it had improved the intellectual environment by bringing staff and PhD students together, with research postgraduates in open-plan clusters outside staff office areas.

"There are things that could have been planned better, and things that take a bit of getting used to. But show me an academic building you couldn't say that about," one lecturer said.

But academics agreed students "had a point" about ease of access to staff and said it wasn't clear the university had got the balance right yet.

A spokesman for Manchester said that "great efforts" had been made to deal with concerns about the building, including improvements to the online booking system.

He said entrances to the academic floors were being staffed during working hours for easier access and there were ample facilities for students and staff.

The spokesman said the Facebook campaign had now "largely died down".

"The most recent meeting with representatives of the Students' Union took place on December 10, when it became apparent that most of the issues have either already been resolved or are in the process of being resolved," the university spokesman said.

The university is not alone in upsetting students who believe their access to tutors is being limited.

Wolverhampton University has also introduced an online booking system for students in its School of Applied Sciences.

One student has written to The Times Higher to complain, claiming that Wolverhampton undergraduates have been stopped from e-mailing their tutors.

Patrick Robotham, dean of the School of Applied Sciences, denied that students were prohibited from e-mailing tutors and said the booking system had been introduced "to enhance student/tutor contact time."

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