Morale heads for the pan

Tim Birkhead fears the consequences of insensitively applied funding cuts

July 1, 2010

As universities scrabble around for ways to cut costs while still "maintaining the quality of teaching and research", there is a risk that they may be tempted to do things they will later regret. Saving cash is not easy and inevitably there will be pain. But there are some things that can be cut and - like certain resilient plants - will spring up again once conditions improve. But there are others that once chopped, will disappear forever.

In the current climate, building space is a burden because it is expensive to maintain, to heat and to light. Those faced with the difficult task of saving cash, but with little idea of how departments or individual academics function, look at space and think: "What can we cut?" A particularly soft target is the coffee room. Used for little more than an hour a day, the coffee room seems, on the face of it, a desperately inefficient use of space. Yet without a place where all the members of a department - academics and support staff alike - can congregate to exchange information, a department has no heart. And with no heart, a department ceases to function properly. Although there are departments that appear to function without a coffee room, they would probably do much better with one.

Although I am at risk of mixing metaphors, let's move now to departmental lavatories. As far as I can see, they too are very inefficiently used; certainly they are rarely fully occupied (even after the mid-morning coffee break). If we are to lose space, we should start by getting rid of lavatories (easily implemented with an automated email rather like those announcing deaths "The vice-chancellor regrets ... "; "The vice-chancellor urges ... everyone to 'go' at home before coming to work"). In my own department, repurposing the lavatories would save the equivalent of 12 staff offices (or 36 if management were to do the allocation) and would have much less impact on departmental cohesion, and the quality of teaching and research, than losing the coffee room.

Another suggestion made by one of my colleagues is that with some basic "caravan technology", the coffee room and lavatories could be combined.

Higher education is like a giant hot-air balloon rapidly losing height over a turbulent, shark-filled sea. In desperation, anything superfluous that may take us down into those dark and predator-filled waters is jettisoned. In fact it is more subtle than that: anything that costs rather than makes money is vulnerable to being chucked overboard.

In the attempt to remain airborne, there is plenty to choose from. For example, departmental libraries, collections or museums - often given in perpetuity - are now just so much excess baggage. As curator of our own departmental zoological museum for three decades, my official title is "honorary curator". A much more appropriate title would be "honorary protector". Every financial crisis over the years has had management turning their eyes towards our museum, saying: "If we could just get rid of all that stuff, we could accommodate vast numbers of ..." computers, undergraduates or postgraduates, depending on what they happened to have a surfeit of at the time. Dump your collections and what you have in perpetuity is merely the sin of doing so.

Academic offices provide another space-saving opportunity. Apparently, the recently rewritten edition of the managers' handbook contains a recommended amount of office space for academics. When this is implemented, each department will look like and be about as intellectually stimulating as a slave ship.

The alternative, already aired in Times Higher Education, is open plan - a plan that most academics consider inoperable and repulsive. With such a structure where would we conduct tutorials or other undergraduate meetings, you ask? Well, there could be an official "tutorial room" (which would of course need to be booked two semesters in advance so that it can be maintained in a state of maximal occupancy throughout the working day). Another popular idea is that face-to-face tutorials could be replaced by screen-to-screen tutorials. Alternatively, academics could consider conducting their tutorials in the pub, or simply abandoning them altogether.

At one university where open-plan offices were introduced, everyone gave up and worked from home. Of course, with this in mind, the threat of open plan may simply be a managerial ploy so that no offices are needed at all.

Excluding academic staff from university buildings altogether would be the most effective space- and cash-saving solution. We could use Skype to deliver our lectures and tutorials and to supervise research projects, and for the lucky undergraduate this would mean an entire higher-education experience delivered through a computer screen. Before anyone implements this, remember Harry Harlow's monkeys, who when deprived of genuine social interaction became psychopaths.

What managers and others involved in the difficult cost-cutting process have to recognise is that to safeguard the quality of teaching and research, they first have to safeguard the well-being of their staff.

Academia still relies very much on goodwill and a willingness to work hard and flexibly. Insensitively conceived cuts to working space will demoralise academic staff, which in turn will jeopardise teaching and research. This is not a threat; it is simply common sense..

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