Lingua franca needed to shape cutting-edge pedagogic spaces

Communication the foundation stone for scholars and estate managers, Matthew Reisz discovers

April 22, 2010

"Finances have changed for ever, but our assumptions about space and pedagogy remain unchanged, and that is unsustainable."

That was the view put forward by David Chiddick, former vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, who told a conference last week that it was deplorable that universities tended to respond to funding cuts by axing jobs rather than improving the way they exploit their "abundant under-used land".

He was speaking at a conference at Queen Mary, University of London, tied to the launch of a report, Learning Landscapes in Higher Education.

The report sets out "ways in which the academic voice can be fully articulated within the decision-making processes at all levels of the design and development of teaching and learning spaces".

It is based on interviews with senior managers, academics, students, estate and support professionals in 12 British universities as part of a project with the business consultancy DEGW.

Jim McConnell, director of estates and buildings at the University of Glasgow, told the conference that when it comes to planning major new buildings, "academics and estates departments don't speak the same language".

He said that while estates professionals needed to remember that there was no "standard-issue" academic or student, scholars also needed to "add value by taking the lead and embracing the client role".

"Since many have never been involved in preparing an architectural brief, they also require training in the basic principles," Mr McConnell added.

Paul Temple, reader in higher education management at the Institute of Education, called on planners to learn the lessons of the past and stop trying to "reinvent the wheel".

He noted that some of the things that people most look for in their places of work - cosiness, friendliness and warmth - often go unmentioned in the briefs given to architects for major university building projects.

Mike Neary, dean of teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln, said that where universities were creating new spaces, academic input "tends to be based on anecdotal information relating to new teaching and learning spaces seen in other universities, and is not research-based". While this meant that "innovation is being consolidated across the sector", he said there was also a danger that "something essential about a social learning space is lost in translation".

At a time when the ideal of the "the entrepreneurial university" is increasingly dominant and "the 'iconic building' seems now to be a feature of every current campus master-planning project", Professor Neary called on academics to make a deeper and more critical contribution to the debate about new teaching and learning spaces.

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