The big squeeze

March 31, 1995

Institutions must wake up to pressures on space, says Paul Roebuck.

Universities have been behaving as if the rise in student numbers was akin to an invasion of lemmings. They have paid scant attention to where students are to be taught, let alone housed.

The rise in student numbers has led to an increase in staff numbers and the effect has been to pack more students and staff into a given finite space. Current building costs are running in the region of Pounds 10,000 to Pounds 12,000 per student for academic or administrative accommodation. But by making better use of existing space, the cost per student is likely to be less, making such a strategy much more attractive.

Space management has tended to be treated as an estates issue. In one sense it is, but those running estates departments are expert in the management of buildings and tend to concentrate on the supply side. It is time for academics to grasp the nettle of the demand side of space management - after all they are the main users of the space.

Problems associated with lack of space are proliferating but there are ways in which the situation can be rationalised. First, it must be recognised that space is not owned in real-estate terms by any university head of department even though many behave as if it were. It is as if an invisible but unbreachable wall exists around departments. Any interaction between departments or between departments and the central university authority is regarded with something between deep distrust and outright hostility.

Education property certainly differs from that of industry and commerce, where real estate belongs to shareholders who can, and do, have a say in the affairs of a company. But taxpayers have good reason to expect that university staff should no longer regard their buildings as "free goods".

Only when heavily protected departmental boundary walls have been broken can a university begin to tackle its overall space problems. Inevitably there are inequalities. Departmental space allocation is usually historical. For example, it is not unknown for heads to prioritise research space at the expense of everything else.

Second, a university needs to assess its total space. At its simplest this is a measure of the current allocation to the main users: academics and administrators. Initially an overall comparison of the percentage of space divided between academic (including library and central computing) and administrative (including communal) uses would be revealing. A figure of 70 per cent or more for academic space is likely to arise in an institution majoring in practical subjects such as medicine, engineering, art and design.

However this sort of figure would be very unhealthy in a more "chalk and talk" establishment. A university needs to look at this balance first and decide who is being squeezed more - the academics or "the rest". For an appreciation of this balance, however, a constructive dialogue must exist between the institution's executive and its day-to-day middle management and senior teaching staff.

A detailed examination of the space breakdown between departments, both academic and administrative, is the third prerequisite for making better use of space. A simple table should not be difficult to produce and data would most likely be grouped by cognate subjects. This needs to be correlated with the number of students in each academic department.

Most universities have shown themselves to be adept at marketing their size as a means of promoting their importance. It starts with every student counting as one, irrespective of mode of attendance. Thus the University of Rutland's status rests on a claim of 20,000 students. To gain appropriate finance, universities (old and new) have worked with full-time equivalents and thus it was that the University of Rutland was funded on the basis of 15,000 students. Heads of departments can recruit staff and bid for financial resources on the basis of FTEs.

However, hard-pressed space managers have to work with an even lower space figure based on space FTEs - a measure of the direct relationship between student numbers and the time they spend on the campus. The University of Rutland has an SFTE of 13,500. This is a less impressive figure to publicise. Regrettable though it may seem, a university has to rationalise its space in SFTE terms. Having determined the actual space already allocated to departments, the more tricky fourth task is to allot the total university SFTE between academic departments. A fair split of SFTEs between departments can be extremely tedious. Some simplification is needed to ward off an army of administrators being employed to see fair play.

The final task can be political dynamite: a league table of academic departments can be produced in descending order of space per SFTE - by dividing the total department space by its SFTE. In a well space-balanced university science, engineering and medical subjects should top the table, with art and design in the next tranche down and social sciences bringing up the rear. No university will have a substantial showing in all the current 11 academic areas. Nevertheless, woe betide any university that has got this order badly wrong. Departments that have significantly more than their fair share of space will hold up reasonable development in many other parts of the university.

There are those who would like something more precise than a table of relativities. The simple solution is to set a new set of space norms. Until now there has been no universal set of parameters for the higher education sector since the abolition of the binary line in 1992. This status quo has been recognised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and led to the formation of its piratically acronymned Space Weighting Advisory Group. And further guidance is likely to emerge as the result of the work on this issue by consultants Touche Ross & Grimley International Property Consultants, who have visited a number of representative universities to assess the realistic space requirements of different academic subjects. The final outcome will be some form of performance indicators based on relative space weightings for cognate groups of subjects. The fair internal distribution of space is bedevilled by many variables, some specific to individual institutions due to their peculiar mix of building size, age and geographical separation. Other problems are of more recent origin, none more so than the now all-pervasive computer.

Whatever the outcome of a survey of the relative space distribution, if gross irregularities are perceived then the university executive must have the will and drive to move to a more equitable distribution of space.

Let us suppose that the University of Rutland had done all the above. Probably it will have taken central command of the situation for the first time. At this stage there will be a good deal of ruffled feathers around, and dark mutterings about Big Brother will be heard in sundry corners. But it is the common good of all the students that is at stake.

One simple and effective expedient is to centralise all general purpose teaching space. This needs to be done carefully. If not, the idea will rapidly spread among the staff that "if the centre owns these rooms then they can look after them, refurnish them, service their visual aids, etc!" It makes more sense to have the majority of such rooms on first call to individual departments, or better, to groups of cognate departments. This needs to be coupled with a reasonable pool of centrally held rooms, including all of the lecture halls and theatres.

The seasoned timetabler also knows that the day needs opening up. Prevailing attitudes such as "we'll have lectures in the mornings and practicals in the afternoon" should have passed into oblivion. This is a recipe for zero utilisation of part of the room stock for half a day. Wednesday afternoon was a sacred cow already sacrificed in a few places. Friday afternoons are unpopular. Industry would go out of business using its space eight hours a day, five days a week, for only 30 weeks a year. It is recognised that evening lectures are unpopular with full-time students, but some modules are going to have to be taught evenings, if only to make the space go round. This has quite marked implications for catering and security. There remains the ever trickier question of charging for space. This concept does have the virtue of bringing home to roost the notion that space is no longer a free good. But that is a battle for another day.

Paul Roebuck was former head of academic accommodation at Nottingham Trent University. He is a member of the HEFCE's space weighting advisory group and an independent space management consultant.

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