I recently overheard a comment to the effect that universities were becoming like call centres. The remark was prompted by the speaker's disapproval of proposals for a new building in which most academic staff would not be located in individual, or even shared, offices but in an open-plan area.
The idea was being promoted by architects and senior managers who, presumably, were thinking of costs. Universities have to obtain approval for expenditure on new buildings from the funding council and are subject to strict regulations relating to the utilisation of space.
I have worked in three institutions where major relocations of staff have had to be planned and implemented. Understandably, staff have strong feelings about their working environment and the prospect of change is unsettling.
In one case, a "state of the art new building' was promised. What subsequently materialised was a refurbished old building with a fancy frontage: the view of many staff is that it is not fit for purpose. In another case, the refurbishment of an older building was carried out to a high standard, but student access to the areas occupied by staff was restricted by a security system. Clearly, an open-plan arrangement would raise rather different issues of staffstudent communication. Some students could be put off by the public space they would have to negotiate and might be disinclined to consult lecturers on confidential matters.
The call centre analogy is also interesting for deeper reasons, which raise disturbing questions about the reconfiguration of academic work that is currently taking place. Staff in call centres are generally expected to work to a "script": they are trained in standard responses to clients and potential customers. Is it too fanciful to suggest that, increasingly, university staff are expected to work to "scripts" designed by others - by the Quality Assurance Agency in relation to course monitoring and approval procedures, and by the funding councils in relation to the research assessment exercise?
All universities now have administrative, non-teaching staff whose job it is to ensure that academics conform to the regulations issued by these bodies. Open-plan offices would introduce another layer of surveillance - staff would be enabled (encouraged?) to spy on each other.
Serious academic work requires time and space to think. A busy, open-plan office is unlikely to be conducive to deep thinking. Conspiracy theorists might be inclined to say that that is part of the grand scheme - to reduce academics to a narrow functional role, in which critical thinking is not really valued, despite the lip service that is paid to it. This might be linked to a perceptible trend in the appointment of senior staff in universities: managerial and "political" skills are now seen as more important than intellectual leadership. Needless to say, such staff will not themselves be required to work in open-plan offices: they will be protected from the vulgar gaze by personal assistants and secretaries.
One consequence is that lecturers who want to undertake serious research may increasingly choose to work at home. This may not be entirely unwelcome to the bureaucrats, who will anticipate an easing of parking problems and a possible reduction in utility bills.
But there would clearly be disadvantages in terms of the intellectual culture of the institution; in particular, much of the fashionable QAA talk about enhancing the student experience would soon lack credibility.
Walter Humes is reserach professor at Paisely University.