Thursday, August 09, 2012

Quality and Profits: Interrogating the role of space

From experience, I know the effects of space on learning is under-appreciated. Particularly so in most parts of the independent higher education sector in Britain, mostly owned and run by owner-operators for students coming from overseas. Somehow, there is an implicit assumption that students really don't care about the learning environment as long as they are in London, and given a good tutor and a course that meets their requirement. There is also a heavy focus on productive space, as in classrooms, as opposed to support spaces, like Library and Student Social Areas, and a tight control over overhead spending and space usage lies at the heart of the economics of independent higher education. As most of these colleges operate at the cost-conscious demand-absorption end of the sector, such 'savings' is often projected as critical to competitiveness and ongoing survival of the institutions.

Coming at it from this perspective of functional space, it is interesting for me to look at various learning spaces and how this affects student behaviour. I remember being given a tour around Ravensbourne, a specialist college in Design and Digital Industries space just outside the O2 arena. The Ravensbourne campus is brand new, opened last year with a 10 million pound investment. It is designed with the philosophy of liquid space, so there are no fixed walls (except for the studios) inside the million square feet campus, which is designed in five or six levels around a giant open atrium. There are beautiful furniture all around, alongside huge screens, projectors and expensive digital equipments. I was with a team from an independent college, whose owners marveled at the cost of the furniture and that the students haven't yet torn them apart. To this, Sir Robin Baker, the CEO of the college, who was taking us around, responded that if you show respect to the space and make it beautifully, the respect is contagious and students respect it too. Touche!

It indeed makes sense for Ravensbourne to follow this philosophy as a design college, but does it hold true for colleges offering diploma programmes in business and accountancy? I do think that while they may not go as far as getting designer furniture and aiming for beauty, it is important to think about the space carefully as this clearly affects student learning and involvement. There are many studies to show how and where the student sits have a significant impact on how well s/he engages with studies. Indeed, one can also refer in context to the Broken Window theory in Criminology (if a window is broken and left as it is, the likelihood of crime in the area goes up), which is the other end of the continuum from Sir Robin's respect for space theory, but the message is same: The space has its own effect and needs to be taken into account. This is not just about being functional or clean; the investment decisions can not just be based on productive and support space ratios, but the quality of space, which dictates the quality of student experience and hence the price they would pay for it.

I do think this is an important issue to consider. In many countries, the Independent Higher Education sector is run by Real Estate entrepreneurs, who has a different way of thinking about space. The Higher Education investments typically have a high infrastructure requirement, which makes it a natural sanctuary for Real Estate businessmen trying to get through the recession. They usually get it wrong on people, which is changing the nature of academic work quite considerably, but what I am arguing here is that they may not even get it right in terms of space too. Space in Higher Ed is not a commodity to be bundled into the mix, but a central ingredient, to be shaped and respected. It is not an overhead, but an active element to be managed: Wherever it sits on a P&L statement, the role of space is central to the business of education.

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