The outlook may be exciting but are teaching facilities up to scratch? Sally Brown lists common complaints about accommodation
University lecturers work in some of the most beautiful, historic, and valuable buildings in the country. They also work in conditions of appalling neglect: prefabs, dilapidated semi-conversions from other uses, rooms with crumbling plaster and disintegrating fixed seating.
The Quality Assessment Agency subject review process seeks to evaluate the quality of provision of learning resources. This includes the physical "plant" of the university.
Reviewers tend to recognise the inherent inequality between the physical resources of each university and strive to give credit for the achievements of lecturers in poor teaching accommodation who make the best of a bad job.
But even the plushest of accommodation can turn out to be difficult to teach in and even poor teaching rooms can have virtues.
Here are some of the principal causes of complaint.
Rooms with appalling acoustics
These make getting your point across to students exhausting and fruitless. Students who cannot hear the lecturer tend to behave badly or switch off. Lecturers consequently experience voice strain in trying to keep up the unequal struggle.
Rooms with poor visibility
Pillars or an L-shaped construction hamper visibility. Lecturers can attempt creative approaches such as teaching adjacent to the most central pillar or at the right angle of the L, but this tends to play havoc with their use of any audio-visual equipment.
Overhead projector screens
Many overhead projector screens, especially the fixed pull-down variety, seem to have been located at the only spot in the room where full sunlight shines in brightly on a winter's day. OHPs can only be seen if you shut out all the daylight. It also never seems possible to turn off those lights closest to the screen to increase visibility without plunging a large section of students into darkness.
Equipment that fails
It is amazing how many universities in the United Kingdom still supply overhead projectors with no fringe control, poor definition, or weak light, or indeed ones where one or both bulbs are blown. Missing screens, video players that do not play, and computer display equipment that crashes also add to the confusion.
Equipment with no instructions
Those who set up and equip new lecture theatres with the latest high-tech projection facilities often forget to provide training for those who will use it.
Faced with a console like the flight deck of Concorde, some resort to carrying an old OHP (with a selection of the faults mentioned above) into the venue.
Some of this is temporary or short-lived. Many classes are regularly disrupted by noisy building work, grindingly loud air conditioning or heating, or disturbances from other students in nearby rooms. The effect of close proximity to the student union is often forgotten by room timetablers who allocate teaching spaces on heavy "student nites".
Over or under-heating
Neither is conducive to effective student learning, and both result in a rash of student complaints. These are often the most difficult things to regulate, especially as many universities nowadays use remote computer-based environment management units with programmes that seem impossible to vary. Flinging open a window is no solution, especially when some student-tempting activity is occurring outside.
Exciting views through the window
A colleague teaching in a venue half way up a mountain side in New Zealand reports being totally thrown by the sight of people parachuting past the window.
The students were undisturbed as they were used to the commercial para-descending school located on the ridge above the venue.
Fixed seating with no flexibility
Lecture theatres can be particularly problematic where the seating was designed for large male students with long legs, so females have to stretch uncomfortably to reach the fixed bench provided for notemaking.
Bored and uncomfortable students often take their frustrations out on the upholstery or woodwork as well, leading to scruffy and graffitti-covered furniture.
Nevertheless, even the worst rooms can have their bonuses. A barn-like hall was shunned at one university as unusable.
But it was ideal for large-scale small group work by a particular colleague. It was the only place she could find where she could get 15 groups of five students working together independently with herself in the middle acting as a help desk.
Similarly a colleague teaching in a room with excellent views out of the window of a noisy urban motorway used the situation for some live statistical analysis to demonstrate a particular package, following students' counting of type, colour and make of vehicles.
In the end, we have to make the most of what we have got and academics are remarkably resourceful at coping in less than perfect contexts. Fortunately students are often amazingly tolerant, especially where the lecturer concerned has an air of charisma, wisdom and intellectual integrity to make them unaware of their surroundings.
Sally Brown is head of the quality enhancement unit, University of Northumbria at Newcastle.