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DUB panel skeptical about reducing square metres for offices and education

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Yes, it’s possible to make more efficient use of the workplaces of employees, and perhaps of the classrooms as well. But that would come with a number of unpleasant consequences. That is, in a nutshell, the reaction of the members of our DUB panel to the university’s new housing plan.

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A reduction of thirty percent overall of offices, laboratories and educational spaces is planned to help keep the UU housing stock affordable for the university. That was the message announced by the executive board last month. The size of employees’ office space especially will be focus of the plans; classrooms and workgroup spaces mostly have to be used more efficiently.

We asked the students and teachers in our DUB panel via email:
When you look around your own environment at university, do you think reducing square footage is possible without any negative effects to your research or education?

More efficient use of office space is definitely possible, thinks Michiel Fleerkate, Educational supporter IT & Education at the faculty of Humanities. “Around me, there are a number of workplaces that are empty and are used sparingly. Using docking stations and laptops, flexible working would definitely be possible.”

Social geographers Bouke van Gorp and Fred Toppen have noticed that many of the consequences people feared when the geoscientists moved from their own spaces in the Van Unnik building to the shared spaces in the Vening Meinesz building didn’t happen. Van Gorp: “That led to a lot of unrest… would you still be able to work in peace? How to handle chats with students? Will there be enough meeting rooms? Etcetera. But in reality, most worries turned out to be unfounded.”

Still, Van Gorp doubts whether things can be done even more efficiently. “There are parts of the day when multiple rooms are completely empty, but there are also moments when a lot of people are present. If people can’t find a workplace and start roaming the halls with their laptops, it would be detrimental to the efficiency of work.”

Van Gorp fears that if a further reduction of space would lead to people starting to schedule all meetings and classes in one or two days in order to avoid going to their workplace too often. “That wouldn’t be beneficial to the sense of community in education and research.” Toppen shares that sentiment, especially when he looks at the ‘open corners’ of the floors where many PhD candidates sit in clusters. “That doesn’t look like an ideal work environment to me. Perhaps that’s why so many workplaces are empty; people prefer to work from home. And that can’t be the intention, can it?”

Literary scholar Frank Brandsma is sceptical as well. “For the Trans 10 building in the city centre, it’s already the case that almost all employees share rooms (there’s four of us, most of us with a full-time position). That’s doable for regular days with classes, but everyone goes home for enough peace and quiet for research and writing. I think it’d be tricky to reduce office space even further here.”

I foresee great problems, for schedule makers, teachers, and especially for students

In the discussion about classrooms, some panel members are worried about the emphasis the housing plan places on more efficient use of the spaces. Bram Vermeulen, Master’s student Earth Sciences: “In the past year, I already had some places at the Bolognalaan, because in the ‘regular’ Earth sciences buildings (Minnaert, Buys Ballot, and Koningsberger buildings), there wasn’t enough space. The same goes for study spaces; in exam periods, everything’s always full.”

Frank Brandsma: “For education in the city centre, creating a schedule is already a hellish job, with ‘overflow’ going to the Spinoza building at the international campus. When that building’s gone and we’re supposed to schedule even more education at the Drift, I foresee great problems, for schedule makers, teachers, and especially for students.”

Michiel Fleerkate agrees that it’ll be tricky to reduce the space used for education. He thinks it’d be more about the trade-off between small-scale education and initiatives that would make it possible to follow classes remotely. “There are great advancements being made in realising the potential of online courses, digital classes and remote exams. However, that requires a lot from the organisation in terms of technology, education design, and from teachers as well. If they don’t support it, it’ll be noticeable for students too, and you have to monitor whether the quality of education is maintained.”

Bouke van Gorp states: “We already have so few contact hours for Social Geography and Planning. If we had any fewer, it’d almost be remote education. There’s really a shortage of rooms: for workgroups, but also for the group work for those workgroups.”

The social geographer isn’t convinced of the possibilities the executive board sees in broadening the ‘opening hours’, thus creating the option of reducing the need for square footage that way. “That type of efficiency can never be that great. With so many students and staff members who don’t live on campus (or in the city of Utrecht), it’s much harder to start early in the morning, or to continue until eight or nine pm.”

Reducing is scary, but smart solutions offer opportunities

But there are some different opinions as well. Fred Toppen sees many classrooms empty, even during regular work hours. “Would it be so bad to teach a workgroup at the end of a Friday afternoon?” Ingrid Weerts, ex-president of the student section of the University Council, and now student in Leiden, suggests making those rooms available to everyone through a reservation system. “Is the digital screen next to the door indicating the room’s available? Great! Keep the door unlocked, use the space.”

She also points out the problem of rooms being reserved ‘just in case’, for courses of which it isn’t known yet how many students will come. “Leiden University has enabled students to register for courses after the start of the course. That’s super convenient: if you hate a course, you can still switch without wasting an entire block. If other universities can be so flexible with their scheduling, shouldn’t it be possible to match the registration in courses and the capacity of spaces? Conclusion: reducing space is scary, but smart solutions offer opportunities.”

Let’s focus on how we can repair the meeting opportunities between teachers and students

Social scientist Peter Selten, finally, thinks the discussion until now has focused too much on efficiency of the use of classrooms and whether you’ll still have a private working space after. “The conversation should really focus on the question of how the university will accomplish the most important educational goal from its Strategic Plan: small-scale education with intensive contact between teachers and students. “That presupposes that teachers and students have easy opportunities for meeting, not just in classrooms but outside them as well, in the hallways, at the coffee machine.”

Selten said that this had been well-handled back in 1980, when he first started working at the university. Offices, classrooms, and even the study programmes’ libraries were located close together in what was then called Trans 1 (now Ruppert building) and Trans 2 (now Van Unnik building). “Slowly, you could see the infrastructure of those buildings change. Classes were concentrated in the Ruppert building and on the bottom floors of the Van Unnik and the Sjoerd Groenman building. Students from all programmes walked around there, often in large groups, making it impossible to see who belonged ‘to you’.”

Selten: “Let’s not let this new discussion about housing be dominated by the question whether or not you should make open-plan offices with flexible workspaces, but by the question of how you can repair these meeting opportunities between students and teachers by making optimal use of spaces.”

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