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Is space the final frontier in higher education value?

Is space the final frontier in higher education value? Jim Dickinson on the problem with capacity in higher education
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The tip of the university capacity iceberg has hit the press, and it’s not pretty.

“No room for you in lectures, top universities tell first-year students” yells the headline in the Observer, accompanied by some amusing responses back from the offending universities. One argues that overflow classes are “a short-term arrangement to cover busy periods at the beginning of the academic year”, behaving like it’s Ryanair only without the legal obligation to rerun the lecture when it’s overbooked it.

Another says that for students in overflow lectures “there are mechanisms in place so students can ask questions”, although who knows what those “mechanisms” are. Carrier pigeon? Stamp addressed envelopes? An amazon echo? Best of luck hooking one of those up to Eduroam.

Universities UK neatly blames the victim. “There is no indication of common or continuing issues with students being asked to join overflow or online lectures… against their wishes” it suggests, and a university says it had run overflow lectures “owing to the popularity of its course”. I mean what else could we have done? In a way, we’re doing the lucky student a favour!

Some will say this is an out of season silly season story – that this is a good sign of enthusiastic student engagement, and not a systematic space or capacity issue. But I’m not so sure.

Train troubles

I was doing some training for some student officers at a Russell Group university the other week, and a funny thing happened on the way to that forum. You know when you get on a train, and the coach is almost empty? Bliss. You find a table seat, spread out your stuff and get right into your emails. The staff are smiling. The wifi is working. Your mood, and your productivity, is high.

It wasn’t like that on the way back, mind. Pro tip – if you want to do some work on a train to London, don’t board it early evening on a Friday. Unless, that is, you’re adept at bashing out angry blogs sat on the floor using your phone, crouched next to the toilet.

Ironically, I only ended up getting on early evening because I went exploring. In the training we’d been discussing things that students moan about and the links to the wider higher education policy agenda, and as ever “space in the Library” came up. Officers described how difficult it was to find a space to revise; how some students would arrive at 5am to reserve their place by building a little fort; and options the university was exploring for demand smoothing (where, like on the trains, you have to book on at wholly inconvenient times to get a proper seat).

Issues like this are central to the value for money debate. Anything that is “shared” between students can be hard to access, or easy to access. Paying to access something and finding that there’s no chance of getting your “share” is unacceptable.

With a taste of a poison paradise

On the training day I thought I’d check out the aforementioned library myself for a change, and so when we finished up instead of heading straight for the station I went to this particular building. It was in the thick of the winter exams period, and it’s fair to say that the atmosphere was… unpleasant. Every seat appeared to be taken. Things that really are not seats had been turned into seats. People were sprawled on the floor and leaning against bookcases and bashing out blogs sat on the floor using their phone, crouched next to the toilet.

The thing about being on a train when it’s like that isn’t just that it’s impossible to get work done – it’s also what it does to humans. Perfectly normal people become utterly unreasonable and vile in disputes about reserved seats. No one is smiling. Solidarity is cancelled. Everyone is hot, and anxious, and miserable. Disabled people can forget even getting on.

And if it’s like this on trains, it’s like this on campuses. The atmosphere in that Library at 4.30pm on a Friday was totally toxic, and some students will have been working in there at 3am not because they’re necking pro-plus, but because it’s the only time they could set a proper chair. Do we really need research to prove what space issues like this on campuses are doing to the mental health of students?

You could fit a few more in ere

The sharp suited men from the space utilisation consultancy probably told university council that the campus was 16.2% under-utilized, but back here in the real world everywhere you look there are tales of campuses getting tighter. It’s not just about study space either – areas where students can just sit down and interact without being sold a £3 latte are already being engineered out of HMOs and PBSA. What are the chances of social learning actually happening if there’s no space to do it in? Will students feel healthier if they can’t get into the gym they’ve paid for, or get any work done if they can’t get home on the (First)Bus term pass they’ve already shelled out for?

To attempt to shift this from anecdote to reality, DK has tipped some data into Tableau so we can see what might be going on. On the first tab each little worm is a provider where HESA estates data on “internal area” space is plotted (over a time series) against student numbers. If the worm is horizontal, space is getting tighter. If it’s vertical, it’s easing up.

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This doesn’t really tell us what we want it to, of course – “internal area” is covering a lot of different types of space here, and there’s plenty of other factors that affect whether particular facilities like libraries and lecture theatres are being “sweat” too “hard”. What we do know is that on campuses all around the country, facilities just haven’t caught up with expansion anything like fast enough. And because students weren’t there ten years ago when it wasn’t as bad, they don’t know any better, or put up with it because, you know, they’ve “made it” into that university.

Will the situation get worse? It is, right now. I can think of a large number of universities who’ve just said hello (in lots of different languages) to a remarkably large number of international students in their January intake, and when their SUs gingerly ask if the university has meaningfully assessed available capacity, they get defensively batted away.

Don’t ask don’t tell

It’s tricky stuff this, but the pressure we have placed on both facilities and people through rapid expansion is huge – and may well mean extra pressure on students at those institutions too. The closer we push campuses and staff to the limit, the more we’ll push students to the limit too. Working out where that limit is is hard, and right now there are few levers that find it or stop us pushing things further. The pressure is to expand, and the restraints on that pressure are few and far between. As one estates professional writes:

No one talks to us about incoming student numbers. No one asks us how many students we can seat in a lecture theatre. No one talks to us about clearing numbers. Our campus can accommodate a finite number of people and no one thinks about that. So, every year, we scramble.

It’s oddly annoying to me that the Office for Students assesses the financial sustainability of provider finances over five years, but in doing so doesn’t appear to even look at the plans to deliver for the students that those expansion plans set out – either on campus or out in the local area. OFCOM has a similar issue with broadband providers attaching too many customers to too few bits of copper pipe, but at least it’s alive to the issues.

OfS does say that a substantial increase in the number of new students registering at a provider “could affect the provider’s ability to satisfy condition E2 (management and governance) in the short term, and conditions B2 and B3 (quality and standards) in the longer term” where the increase raises concerns about whether such growth “was effectively planned and managed, or whether the quality of student support or student outcomes will be maintained for larger numbers of students”. But let’s not bet that it’s had any self-reported reportable events to this end. And if it has, shouldn’t they be telling students at that provider so they can seek legal redress?

Alternative prospectus

So in a vain attempt to push back a bit, here’s my advice for prospective students. The open days arms race is a waste of money for everyone concerned. And ironically, the better universities get at positively framing “what will it be like here” rather than just describing features, the more cynical people get about the whole exercise when they find there’s nowhere to sit and eat the meal deal they just queued half an hour to buy.

Given open days are a “corridor painted for the Queen’s visit” simulation, instead, visit on a Tuesday lunchtime and try and find somewhere to sit. Pop into the library during exam time. Ask real (not under the cosh ambassador or paid social media influencer) students about cost of living. See if those star academics have any office hours available.

Follow some of the staff in the department on Twitter to see if they’re marking 500 essays in a week – in the night. Or see if their PhD students are doing it instead. Read the university’s harassment policies. Pop into the SU and ask yourself if they’d be on your side in a row. Find out how many students they actually mean when they say “seminar”. FOI the university on NDAs used on students, and assessment turnaround time, and class sizes and contact hours.

And the very second you enrol, please do quit that “I’m lucky to be here” thing. It’s not good for your mental health.

Join us at The Secret Life of Students in March where we’ll interrogate the student experience in more detail. Booking open now.

One response to “Is space the final frontier in higher education value?

  1. Great article, particularly the last part. I retired in 2017 from an institution that had a great record of expanding and developing study space, but students often reported in surveys that there wasn’t enough space in the library and IT rooms. When we looked at the data, there was plenty of empty space – the problem was it involved walking to the next building. And this was even after we introduced apps that told students where space was available. But no doubt it’s a real issue elsewhere – until recently when they opened a new “student centre” I was embarassed to visit my alma mater and see students squatting with their laptops in the Cloisters. But with HEIs under the cosh financially, what choice do they have?

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