In my university, and I think in most others in Ireland, and I suspect in many universities the world over, one of the key scarce resources is space. Quite often now the key problem with any new programme, new research project, new recruitment prospect, new anything really, is that we have to work out how we can accommodate it. DCU’s campus is, in terms of acreage, the smallest in Ireland, but for almost all of the university’s life there has been relentless growth; first in particular in undergraduate numbers, more recently strongly in postgraduate and staff research. During all that time there has been almost constant construction around the campus, but now the campus is very nearly fully occupied, and as you might expect the amount of construction, while significant, has still not kept pace with growth.
As we look for ways to finance new capital projects, we also need to look very carefully at how we allocate existing buildings, and how we use the campus as a whole, particularly at times of year when students are not there. Again, campus space audits and reviews are now a feature of the national system, as we try to find a way to accommodate all those initiatives we need to support. We also need to ensure that the use of space is affordable, in terms of maintenance and energy costs.
And we are not alone. The most recent issue of Chronicle of Higher Education reports that, in the United States, ‘academics will fight over money and kill over space’. We also learn how space is distributed in big public research institutions: and it might surprise some that classrooms account for only 3 per cent of space. One senior administrator is quoted as saying that the space allocation is an issue balancing efficiency and quality.
In Ireland, the risk we now run is that space and accommodation issues will become a subject for bureaucratic control by government or its agencies, with resulting loss of autonomy and an inability to respond effectively to new challenges and opportunities. On the other hand, the universities cannot expect to get support unless there is a clear policy on space issues, and this policy reflects the need both for high quality of provision and for the effective and accountable use of resources. Space allocation cannot be done in an ad hoc way, or without proper space audits, or without due consideration of the potential for resource sharing amongst institutions. In the current straitened national circumstances, these are matters to be addressed with some urgency.