From where I sit - Scholarly yen for free space

February 16, 2012

Should academics be charged to use university space for scholarly purposes?

An American colleague at one of the private (non-profit) universities in Tokyo recently included me on an email to a UK academic they'd met at a conference who had expressed an interest in visiting Tokyo and meeting people here with common interests. She mentioned that if the visitor wanted to give a talk while here she would arrange and publicise it, although the visitor would have to find the funding to cover the fairly substantial cost of room hire at the university.

This is in stark contrast to my own situation at Meiji University and at my previous institution (the University of Reading), where academics could book rooms for academic purposes without charge, subject to availability and reasonable requirements of justification. It seems that even within countries, attitudes on charging for space can diverge.

Over the past few years I have attended a small annual conference that was run first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. At MIT there was no charge for registration, as it provided the rooms for free and the costs of catering were covered by modest sponsorship from commercial partners. The same partners sponsored the event at CMU, but even so, this required a registration fee of $250 (£157) per attendee (for a two-day event using one room and a corridor outside for refreshments and socialising).

A university's estate is one of those awkward things with a large set of fixed costs (construction, maintenance, upgrading, cleaning) and a modest set of unit costs (things wear out more quickly when used than not, and perhaps more effort is needed in cleaning). Pricing the usage of such facilities is a notoriously difficult thing to do and making mistakes can cause resentment. Universities that make little or no charge for the usage of their estate may well see an abuse of this system by internal and external staff, particularly in a place such as Tokyo where land and space are at a premium.

However, charging academics for the use of a room for ordinary academic purposes, such as research project meetings, seminar presentations by visitors and even running small academic conferences, runs the risk of undermining the academic mission and prestige of the university. While abuse of a free booking system by academics is a possibility, I suspect it is a rare event and something that can and should be handled by decent management of the system and the scholars concerned.

Free space or a nominal charge encourages academics to engage with their peers from other institutions locally, nationally and internationally, and with industrial and governmental contacts, too. It can also help to raise the profile (and status) of the institution generally. External use of campus facilities can be charged at a suitable market rate (with allowances for charitable usage, for example) and the remaining costs should be covered by appropriate allocation of overhead charges on teaching and research funding.

As UK universities consider shared-service arrangements, which may include estate management, they should be wary of losing (if they have it already) the academic benefits of the free use of estate capacity for scholarly purposes.

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