Solitary cells of scholars cut off by loss of community

January 26, 2007

Academics feel isolated by heavy workloads and the lack of shared areas, writes Tony Tysome

"I moved here, left my friends and family behind to come to a place where I don't think I've spoken to the guy in the next office for six months.

"We all work in a vacuum, centred on our narrow little fields."

These comments, from a 36-year-old lecturer in a research-led university, sum up how isolated many academics feel in their work, according to researchers at Glamorgan and Cardiff universities.

They found that feelings of isolation persist despite higher education's continuing drive to promote interdisciplinary working by, for instance, constructing buildings and communal spaces where staff from different disciplines interact.

A study led by Gloria Moss, a research fellow at Glamorgan, concludes that "chronic levels" of isolation suffered by some academics are the result of "structural" and "psychological" factors.

In a paper on the findings of her research conducted with Krzysztof Kubacki, a lecturer in marketing at Keele University, she explains that the structural factors include physical elements in the working environment, such as the absence of a staff common room.

The majority of academics who were interviewed in depth as part of the study said the lack of a common room contributed significantly to their feelings of isolation.

The paper describes how academics taking part in the research believed that access to a common room could make a positive contribution to their work as well as helping to avoid a downward spiral into depression as a result of working alone.

It says: "A shared space where employees could meet, sometimes accidentally, was frequently described as a place where ideas might spontaneously come into being. Where such meetings did take place, for example over a morning cup of tea, the conversation might end with a declaration such as 'let's do a paper on it'."

Psychological factors leading to isolation were due largely to a lack of support from colleagues or co-workers, the paper suggests.

One interviewee commented: "We give more support to research students than to fellow academics."

Emmanuel Ogbonna, professor of management and organisational behaviour at Cardiff University, argues that increasing workloads brought about by target-driven management is to blame for the increasingly solitary nature of academic life.

In his own research, he has found evidence of academics feeling isolated because they no longer have time to mix with others. In this case, even when a common room exists they rarely get the opportunity to use it, he says.

"In many universities you will find that although space may be available for people to meet, they do not use it because they have locked themselves away and have their noses to the grindstone in response to the pressure on them to excel in certain ways."

Some institutions have already recognised the problems of solitary working and taken steps to resolve it.

Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College built a common room into plans to redevelop its High Wycombe campus after staff protested against a proposal to scrap the facility.

Stephen Soskin, University and College Union branch chair at BCUC, said:

"It is undoubtedly the case that as workloads increase staff have less time to meet informally to discuss issues. Having a staff room at least means they have a facility to meet when they can."

Newcastle University has, like a growing number of institutions, created a multidisciplinary research centre that includes a coffee lounge for staff.

Jill Golightly, head of the university's research office, said facilities at the centre, known as The Beehive, partly make up for the disappearance of staff rooms in the rest of the university.

"When I first came to the university there were lots of common rooms but that has slipped, as they have not been seen as such a high priority.

"The Beehive was one step we could take to try to ensure that staff from a wide range of disciplines had somewhere to meet and share ideas."

'The common room shapes ideas'

The closure of a staff common room at De Montfort University has left academics struggling to find a place where they can discuss work informally in a relaxed environment, it was claimed this week.

Neil Williamson, University and College Union branch secretary at De Montfort, said all the problems predicted by objectors when the university decided to axe a staff-only restaurant and bar several years ago were now emerging.

He said the loss was adding to feelings of stress and isolation among academics.

Staff who want to meet over lunch or a coffee must now do so in a bustling, noisy food court where they rub shoulders with scores of students, he said.

"As we predicted when the university chose to ignore our protests over its decision, the fact that there is no longer an informal setting for academics to get together is damaging collegiality," he added.

"The food court is noisy and crowded, and there is no privacy. Even though staff go there to eat, it tends to be much more of an isolating experience than you might expect because it is not conducive to having a confidential chat about significant aspects of your research or teaching."

Mr Williamson said he was sure that the disappearance of the staff common room had contributed to rising levels of work-related stress among academics at De Montfort.

But he said that target-driven university managers were so focused on the bottom line that they failed to see the importance of providing dedicated facilities for staff to meet and exchange ideas.

"As far as they are concerned, if you can't measure it, then it doesn't count. It was difficult to measure the benefits of staff having somewhere to meet informally, so they got rid of it," he added.

Academics may blame business-style management in higher education for their feelings of isolation and stress, but one business school head has been determined to come to the rescue by saving space for a common room.

Steve Hill, head of research at Glamorgan University's Business School, fended off growing pressure to justify the use of space in financial terms and made sure that a common room was included as part of his school's recent refurbishment plans.

His reasons for doing so were entirely pragmatic - he believes that maintaining a staff common room contributes to both the quantity and quality of research.

He explained: "The fact is, if academics sit around the coffee table eventually they start to talk about work. I see the common room as playing a very important part in the process of generating new ideas.

"Sharing ideas is what academics do best, but often that only comes about when you have somewhere where, for instance, economists can chat to accountants and find some interesting areas to explore in the gap between their own expertise.

"Space is always tight and under pressure, so you always have to fight to get new space or to hang on to what you've already got."

Professor Hill admitted that it would be some time before the school could provide real evidence of a connection between common-room meetings and research productivity.

"When you start looking at space utilisation and income per square foot, a common room will score very low. But just because its value is difficult to measure doesn't mean it is any less valuable," he added.

Without a common room, staff were likely to meet in their own offices, which could significantly limit the number and range of people they mix with, he said.

"I am not surprised that some researchers feel isolated. It is often a solitary furrow and intensive in its nature. Maintaining a common room can be part of the answer," Professor Hill said.

Tony Tysome

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