Posted tagged ‘campus’

The final frontier

April 27, 2009

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.

The student experience

July 3, 2008

When I was a student – and I’m afraid that wasn’t yesterday – my ‘working day’ tended to begin at 10 am or so (I just couldn’t make it to any 9 am lectures) and ended very very late. I rarely made it back to my bed before midnight. Of course it wasn’t that back then in the last century Trinity lecturers gave us tutorials at 10 pm; rather, the campus was full of other activities from the very rich menu of clubs and societies.

Recently I walked through the same campus at about 9 pm, and it was like a morgue. There was almost nobody to be seen, and as far as I could tell nothing that required organisation was happening. There may of course have been special reasons for the absence of visible activities on that day, and it may have been highly atypical. But I can have the same experience, at least on some days, on any university campus after around 7 pm. 

It is not that today’s students are safely tucked up in bed at 9 pm. It is, rather, that there are so many alternative attractions these days outside the campus, many of them involving large quantities of drink. But the effect has been to remove a little bit of the student experience, that part of the experience that can be found in things like debates, games and sports. So you might conclude that ‘student life’ is dead. And yet on the other hand, when you look at the variety of active clubs and societies in my own university you may change your mind. I am regularly thrilled by the enthusiasm of students in supporting their favourite extra-curricular activities through student organisations – both in traditional clubs and societies and in the newer and occasional quirky ones such as DCU’s ‘Style Society’ or the ‘Murder She Wrote Society’.

But despite all that, I still think we need to do more. One of the things we can do is to try to incorporate student participation in such activities in the formal curriculum, or more importantly within the body of work that we assess for degree purposes. DCU has been doing this for some time now in the Uaneen module. Called after the late broadcaster and DCU graduate Uaneen Fitzsimons, this module can be chosen by undergraduate students and will count for the credits needed for the final qualification. Through the module students who choose it can gain recognition for participation in clubs, societies, and community work. It is as far as I know still unique in Ireland, but while it has strong support in the student community it is sill only chosen by a fairly small number.

We need to ensure that the student experience is not just gained in the lecture room, the laboratory or the pub, but that we encourage them to participate in other activities which can gain them valuable experience and skills. Then perhaps we can also allow our campuses to become lively again at 9 pm and later.