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UK academics accused of demanding too much office space

Academics in the UK have more office space than people working in other sectors, a report has argued.

It would take a “cultural change” to make them use their space more efficiently, it says.

The Estate Management Statistics annual report 2010, published on 14 June, was commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, The Scottish Funding Council, and Northern Ireland’s Department for Employment and Learning.

It says that the office-space norms in the UK higher education sector are “completely at odds” with those in other sectors and that there is significant scope for “rationalisation”.

It estimates that while space for support staff in universities has decreased from an average of 9.6 square metres per person to 8.8 square metres per person over the 10 years to 2009, the corresponding figure for academics has increased from 13 square metres to 13.8 square metres.

Although other sectors have increasingly moved away from using private offices to open plan spaces, some academics still view having their own office as the “norm for their discipline and method of teaching, and perhaps a status symbol,” says the report, referring to “anecdotal evidence”.

Chris Cowburn, a member of the EMS steering board and estates consultant at HEFCW, says he supports the report on this point.

“It has been a long-standing issue within higher education that academics have had—and continue to have—a high level of office accommodation,” he told Research Fortnight.

But there are, he adds, various reasons for that. Office-space figures for senior academics may include space that is occupied by administrators and support staff, he says. Many academics also use their offices for tutorials, so there is an element of “dual-purpose use”.

The EMS says institutions should make departments more accountable by estimating how much space they use and charge them for it.

Cowburn says the reports recommendations make sense, but adds that they should remain guidelines and not become requirements.

“[Academics having private offices] is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s appropriate to the requirements and needs and it is properly managed,” he said. “At the end of the day, if that’s part of the package that an institution uses to attract and retain senior academics, then that’s a material consideration.”