More elbow room a must

May 27, 2010

Your leader about forcing academics into open-plan offices concentrates on the problems such arrangements cause for the health and well-being of staff ("Mavericks won't be corralled", 13 May).

I have worked in a variety of organisations - in a university, in industry and in the public sector - and always in open-plan offices. Outside the academy, I found such arrangements acceptable and indeed preferable, not least because of their sociability.

However, it is my belief, as one no longer directly affected, that for academics as opposed to administrative staff, open-plan offices and the inadequate work space they offer will seriously harm performance.

Open-plan desks say much about the reduced social (and therefore intellectual) authority of most academics. They also show how the provision of individual and small- group teaching and advice, which used to take place largely in lecturers' individual offices, has declined because of rising student numbers, despite its importance for learning.

In relation to research, my experience is that university staff have long been given inadequate space for books and research material. Too many published papers demonstrate the results, in particular inadequate references to previous work.

Before anybody claims that I am overlooking new technology, in my experience computers generate paperwork, not save it.

Academics have long used their homes for work, including the storage of books and papers. In the past, even junior lecturers could afford quite substantial houses. But I am all too aware from personal experience that such work practices often had adverse effects on family welfare. In any case, few university staff can now afford such lifestyles today.

The truth is that academics need more work space than most office staff. Administrators who economise by pretending otherwise are damaging the quality of our universities.

Frederic Stansfield, Kent.

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