Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Opening up the university

As part of a collaborative effort in collecting writing in the “death of the university” genre, I accessed this interesting reading list on university space layout, crowd-sourced in the old skool social medja of the Critical Geographer’s JISC mailing list.*It includes this report from Loughborough university, which unlike most of the guff in the “death of the university” literature is actually based on evidence, rather than just someone moaning in front of a keyboard (I really like this response to a recent awful Spectator piece on the growth of uni admin). The report included this interesting space-utilisation graph:

At both universities I’ve worked at we’ve had space utilisation studies and I’ve always wondered what the results look like. It’s not a surprise. I’m sat typing this at home, so my office is part of that 60 per cent that’s unused.

Anyway, I was thinking about this over the past couple of days. As you’re probably aware if you follow this blog, I swim and generally keep fit to maintain sanity (you can watch me swim here). My swimming training happens at a local secondary school in Edinburgh, with the coaches paying a commercial rate to cover all the school’s costs. On the one hand, I can afford to use this resource at commercial rates and this excludes other groups that might not be able to afford it. On the other hand, this income means that the school can actually afford to keep the pool open and have a swimming pool that their pupils can swim (although one of the kick boards I’ve used had “I HATE SWIMMING” scratched into it) – a difficult balance for a local authority to strike and one we don’t talk about enough.  

At the weekend just gone, I competed in the Stirling Triathlon (if you go and look at the results, in my defence, the swim time includes the 50-60 second run around to transition!). This used the university pool at Stirling and the campus for the run. I’m pretty sure a lot of my race fee went towards the cost of renting the buildings.

But, I want to go back to that diagram above. At an event on the Future Public Servant as part of the Scottish Government’s Participation Week yesterday, I made the point that one of the greatest resources the Scottish Government has to enable participation is its own resources – it has extremely talented individuals who could join committees and do participation in their local or interest communities. They also have buildings throughout Scotland that will be left empty at times that people want some space to use. As a research project I supported showed, what helps people engage is somewhere to sit and have a cup of tea and somewhere to prepare and eat food together – something most public sector organisations have in acres.

It strikes me that a very easy way for universities to become more progressive, change society for positive benefit, and coproduce services with local communities is to open some of this space they have up to a much wider range of organisations and groups. Being an academic, I feel very confident walking into other university’s space (cafes, libraries etc.) and using them for my own ends. If the university is going to be engaged then it spaces should be more open and more people should feel comfortable in them. To put it plainly, a local Community Council should be able to use a teaching room of an evening for free for their meetings. Perhaps this is one way the university can engage again with a social mission akin to the settlement movement?

* if you’re not a member of CRIT-GEOG I’d advise joining and getting the daily digest just to have a daily chuckle at the debates that go on. The annual “stop sending requests for articles” debate is a particular highlight I always look forward to. 

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