Space: (Still) The Final Frontier
Even in the age of the Internet, an effective university requires academic community. A neglected requirement of community is space — an actual physical space — where teaching staff and students meet.
Even in the age of the Internet, an effective university requires academic community. What is academic community? It includes a sense of generally shared academic values along with a commitment to a university, to colleagues, and to students. It is important to have an involvement in academic affairs through shared governance and a say about curriculum and teaching decisions.
A neglected requirement of community is space—an actual physical space —where teaching staff and students and meet to work, meet, and communicate. The argument here is that without a common and appropriate space, academic communities cannot flourish.
The contemporary university is becoming desperately short on community. Massification, mega-institutions, huge faculties, and strained resources have detracted from the notion of a shared community. So has the culture of hyper-accountability, where everything is measured, and where competition between individuals and institutions has become a central part of academic life.
In many countries, realities of the academic profession have changed significantly, profoundly affecting the possibility of community. Academics were once appointed to full-time positions and had reasonable security and mostly permanent contracts. Only in Latin America has the norm almost always been part-time for most professors. Now, more universities and academic systems throughout the world are employing part-time staff and full-time academics under contracts with no possibility of a permanent job. In the United States, fewer than half of new academic appointments are offered a permanent or tenure track option. A majority are either part-time or full-time contract employees.
The Space Equation
The normal expectation in western Europe, Japan, and North America is that a full-time member of the teaching staff, and especially academics in the upper ranks of the professoriate, will have a private office for scholarly work and meeting with students. Those in the sciences would mostly have laboratory space, whether private or shared. Offices might not be commodious, but at least they provide a “space” on campus, often located within the precincts of the department, faculty, or center to which the staff member belongs.
Part-time staff seldom has private space, although they are often provided with shared area where they might meet with students or prepare for class. Even universities that may have provided offices to professors in the past are opting for shared space. In some cases, ideas about collaborative research may be driving such changes, but in general, shortages of space is more likely to be a result of tight budgets.
In much of the world today, private space is a luxury. The large majority of the teaching staff in universities worldwide lack even minimal space to do academic work or interact with students and colleagues at their place of employment
In many universities in Latin America up to 80 percent of the faculty are part-timers who teach a course or two, with poor remuneration and virtually no further involvement with the university. With few exceptions, the teaching faculty has no place to meet with students, and no meeting rooms. Some countries have no tradition of providing office space even to the full-time faculty members. Russia is an example. Academics are expected to conduct their research at home and are typically at the university only to teach their classes. While faculty in the sciences may have access to laboratories, those in other fields generally have little or no personal space. Interestingly, not long ago, one of Russia’s top universities considered making office space available to most of its professors. A survey of the teaching staff showed that while some welcomed the idea, others opposed it because they would be expected to spend more hours at the university more with less time to engage in unrelated private consulting and other income-producing activities.
For a significant proportion of those teaching in postsecondary education, the job requirement seems to be to teach classes and little else—there is no expectation to meet with students or colleagues. However, this often precludes high quality teaching, collaboration in research, or a flourishing academic culture. Furthermore, faculty members will develop little loyalty or commitment to their employers.
Information and Communications Technology
Many see ICTs—especially the use of the Internet for communication and technology-assisted courses and degree programs such as MOOCs and on-line programs, as a panacea for addressing the challenges of cost, access, and bridging distances. It is certainly true that the Internet permits easy communication among academics both within a specific university and beyond. Collaboration, for research and other communication, is certainly enabled by the Internet since contact around the corner is just as easy as with another continent (so long as suitable bandwidth is available, sometimes still a problem in developing countries). Similarly, certain kinds of teaching are facilitated by technology, as the MOOCs are showing. Interactive teaching, virtual meetings with the use of sophisticated video connections, and many other innovations using ICTs create significant opportunities for higher education. But to date, technology has not really achieved anything comparable to the kind of community that can be developed on a physical campus. Those who predict that the “brick and mortar” university will disappear are mistaken. ICTs have limitations. Face to face communication, the ability to share a cup of coffee with colleagues, participation in academic discussions and meetings, and other informal interaction often yield serendipitous insights and ideas.
No solutions are offered here, just emphasis that effective higher education—whether it be a successful world-class research university or a post-secondary institution focusing on teaching, learning, or serving first-generation students—requires an academic community to achieve its best results and such a community requires some physical infrastructure. This discussion has focused on space—offices, laboratories, common rooms, and others—and on the benefits and limitations of technology. One size certainly does not fit all academic purposes, but some basic issues are common to all higher education endeavors. Space is not the only requirement—full-time academic appointments, adequate remuneration, and participation in academic affairs through shared governance are also important. But space, so often overlooked, is central.
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