Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Brookes student completes transatlantic rowing challenge

Posted by Jock Coats on March 29th, 2010

There not much to add to this – they set out on 4th January having had a series of frustrating delays owing to weather conditions in the Canary Islands, but on Thursday (I think – even though their arrival blog post was posted Sunday) Tom Heal, second year Business undergraduate here at Brookes, and his friend Will Smith arrives after eighty days and 19 hours at sea at the finishing line in Antigua.

Read all about it at their blog, which has been a fascinating record throughout the course of those nearly three months.  And the gallery contains some amazing pictures taken throughout, including one of the now infamous “Lenny”, a black and white striped fish (possibly a Pilot Fish) that has followed their boat since the end of the first month of the crossing right to the very end in Antigua!

In completing this immense challenge, Tom and Will actually enter the record books as the youngest ever crew to complete such an ocean rowing feat.

Tom Heal, Business and Management undergraduate

Tom Heal, Business and Management undergraduate

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Called in

Posted by Jock Coats on March 3rd, 2010

Rumour reaches me that our big planning application for the new library and teaching building has been, as it is termed, “called in” so that the decision will be made once again by all 48 city councillors. So the decision of the Strategic Development Control Committee, whom council elect to make large planning decision on their behalf, is for the second time being challenged and could yet be overturned and the application refused permission.

I have to admit that my own record on this sort of thing is hardly blemish-free – it was I who arranged for the decision in 2000 to allow the Oxford International Centre for Islamic Studies the go ahead to build on Marston Road reopened in full council after even full council had approved it narrowly on the very tenuous grounds that because we had had council elections in between and the composition of the council had changed it was potentially a material difference since the decision had been made! My argument was rejected, thankfully, and although I would probably still have preferred for the Islamic Centre not to have marked the start of development encroaching down the green spaces on the Marston Rd that divide the city from the suburb, given the often rather bleak look of what we have built opposite, I do rather find the Islamic Centre architecture a welcome break from 21st century halls of residence!

However, having been involved in the other side of planning now, i.e. from the applicant’s point of view, both with Oxfordshire Community Land Trusts and more recently obviously with this Brookes application, I am a reformed character in that respect. As a memorandum put out by the city council’s head of planning Michael Crofton-Briggs a couple of years later stated (at the time trying to remind councillors that appeals could be expensive and losing an appeal even more so) the principle of British planning law is that by default property owners should be allowed to do what they want on their property, unless there are well grounded public policy reasons why not.

Planning officers – the professionals whom the council appoints to be the “expert witness” if you like applying the local plan and local development framework to test each application and to recommend decisions to councillors – have twice now recommended approval for the building. The Strategic Development Control Committee has twice now followed the officers’ recommendations and approved the application – the last time by the narrowest possible majority in a 12 person committee – 7 votes to 5 – and this time somewhat more convincingly at 9 votes to 3. And both applications it seems will now end up being decided by the whole council.

It seems to me that the way this process works actually turns on its head that fundamental planning principle of allowing property owners to do what they want with their property by default, and implies what is the reality, that councillors feel that they have a right to hold something up until the applicant satisfies them. But I know only too well now what this sort of politicking costs. We are strong enough to be able to bear such costs, but when the applicant is someone, say a small developer, engaged on his main business activity, putting everything on hold, sometimes for years if a protracted appeals process ensues, can be enough to break such a business, which is an appalling price to pay for lay-councillors deciding to play a little politics with that developer’s property.

Development control is supposed to be a “quasi-judicial” process. Whilst justice demands rightly that objectors have their opportunity to comment and campaign against something, I do wonder whether ultimately the correct people to make the end decision, to balance, for example, the essentially non-voting applicant – “Oxford Brookes University” per se, does not have a vote in local elections and a very large proportion of our students do not vote (as students tend not to anywhere) – whereas the objectors are people who do have a vote and whose votes councillors must gain or retain when they are up for election.

So the incentives, I’ll say no more than that, are for councillors to side with the voters, and the most vocal of them at that, and not with applicants. It should be borne in mind too that their obligation is to all their constituents and not just the most vocal and erudite and some of these councillors have a lot of students in their ward who may not have voted for anyone but are still entitled to their councillors’ consideration.

Maybe it’s time that all planning decisions were handled by some kind of dispassionate professional service rigourously applying law and policy in a properly judicial setting.

Let us just hope that this time, sense will win out, and those who understand the contribution that Brookes makes to the local economy (which our city council has endorsed previously as part of the South East Plan which is where they should have raised objections if they wanted to I’d suggest) and that jeopardising the redevelopment of our physical facilities to better reflect our academic reputation, will have a majority in full council and that we do not need to go through the tortuous process of an appeal.

Constructions costs are now back on the rise. The longer gaining permission takes the more expensive, potentially, the development becomes, and the more of a diversion of resources that will mean from front line teaching, learning, research and student experience activities.

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Discretion and valour

Posted by Jock Coats on February 5th, 2010

The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed that the post from a couple of days ago about some of the details of the reorganisation of schools has disappeared.  The relevant people for whom it was primarily intended – the heads of the departments in the School of the Built Environment – had seen it (I can tell from the server logs!) as had many colleagues in the School.

But I notice today, having received paperwork for next week’s governors meeting that the issue is still marked down as part of the confidential section of the agenda.  Personally I am no fan of “confidential agendas” – though I can see why in certain cases where some kind of commercial contract is involved that could jeopardise our position in a proposed deal if it got out may need to be confidential.  It happened at the city council as well – though I seem to recall that “confidential” there did not apply to staff of the council, only the public’s presence at the meeting.

Anyway, I have got into a bit of hot water previously about discussing confidential items, albeit more publicly than on this blog, so for the moment, and until I clarify the situation, I have taken the post down.  On 19th January I did ask the V-C whether I could now talk more openly about the reorganisation and she said at that time “give it another couple of weeks” in order for Executive Board and the Deans to have a chance to see the proposals first.  Two weeks was up on Tuesday of this week, but although I think I have covered myself, I want to get further clarification given its appearance on the confidential agenda for next week.

That said, if you want to discuss it, or read the piece for yourself (and it really does mostly apply to SBE rather than the whole university), mail me or call me and I’ll forward it to you: I just feel it might be best not in such a public arena as a blog that anyone on the planet can find!

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Musical chairs, or the great game of reorganisation, round 3 1/2

Posted by Jock Coats on February 3rd, 2010

Ever since I’ve been at Brookes it has felt like there is constant reorganisation going on (thankfully, usually, around me rather than involving me directly).  And so there should be, in many respects.  A large organisation does not grow, breathe, develop, without change; without constantly re-evaluating itself and the ebb and flow of outside influences and how we react to them.  So, as most of you are probably now at least dimly aware, there is another round of reorganisations in the works.

I remember literally the very first day of being a governor, the day after the election count, was a “Governor’s Strategy Day” which is an opportunity, usually once a year, for governors to meet slightly less formally than in a “business meeting” to hear from a variety of people about plans for the university and to discuss, without having to make immediate decisions, various options for the future.  Working in a team that supports desktop computing need from directors to admin assistants in all non-academic areas of the university, and having a background in business analysis and so knowing how to pick up vibes and information about how people and departments work, as well as living onsite to boot, I always thought I was reasonably well “plugged in” to how Brookes worked.

But when in the first presentation on that Strategy Day it became clear that far from being the dominant manager class, SMT actually had to “ask” this panel of more or less independent experts whether their idea of the direction of travel seemed appropriate.  They had to ask what we thought of their ideas, effectively ask permission to develop them and so on, and that was the very first time that I really felt like I could see the direction of travel of the entire machine, rather than the sometimes confusing apparent changes in the arrangement of the cogs inside that machine.  And it was comforting in a strange way…

I don’t want to appear to have “sold my soul” to the managerial classes, because I haven’t.  I retain a very healthy scepticism about management in academia, and about academics who give up their life’s passion to become part of “management”.  But I do always feel reassured that management always act in what they feel are the best interests of the institution and its mission.  In the underbelly we often hear murmurings about, for example, everything becoming too “corporate” or “commercial”, but from the governance perspective, many of these real world pressures upon us do become clear.

Now, none of that is to say that there are not opportunities to argue with management.  One of the best things I have found, even when I was an unknown, junior techie, about working at Brookes is that, by comparison with my experience of “big business”, even the most senior management are much more approachable with ideas, much more willing to re-evaluate after feedback than often extremely dictatorial corporate management.

We all recognise that we are a quintessentially “social enterprise”.  This has implications not just for what the “ends” of the institution as a whole are (i.e. that “profit” is not the only, or even the predominant, consideration in the “bottom line” except where it allows us to do more of what we think will be a greater social benefit).  But that unlike the corporate world where the shareholders are ultimately the primary interest in a business, we recognise much more the place of all our “stakeholders” (to use one of the most overused but ill-defined neologisms of contemporary “market politics”).  Management are not the explicit, legal agents of a class of interests (the owners) that is often fundamentally opposed to other interests such as staff but much more obviously have to co-ordinate those varying interests.

Anyway, a lot of this is really by way of introduction to my next post – as we are at one of those points where a little bit of arguing back to management might well be appropriate.  The proposal to reorganise the university into four, instead of the current eight, academic “groupings” – call them “schools”, “faculties” or whatever you will, is probably pretty well public knowledge by now (I know, to some personal frustration at not being able to discuss it terribly openly, the rumour mill has been going for months now about it).  And I believe I have kept my word as a governor to keep my silence until Deans and Executive Board and so on had had an opportunity to hear the plans, so now I think I can address some of the issues more publicly and directly.

Whilst in many areas, the synergies are obvious, and indeed welcomed amongst some colleagues looking forward to working more closely with new “school mates”, there is one area in particular, the School of the Built Environment, where the current unit is not going to be a “partner” in a merger but split apart into several different new schools.  So this deserves a post of its own as Mitch and I grapple with some of the issues that you would like us to take up on your behalf over the next couple of weeks before the plans become completely set in concrete…

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See amid the winter snow…

Posted by Jock Coats on January 6th, 2010

So the university has decided to be closed tomorrow, Thursday 7th January, except for “essential staff”.  This presents a nice little irony for those intent on evicting live-in warden staff from halls of residence.  Because of course, although it is not term time and we don’t have that many people about even in halls at the moment, what we do have are wardens, who, under the previous system of marketing the role primarily to university staff would, almost by definition, be stuck, tomorrow…in halls of residence.

Snow at Morrell Hall last night

Snow at Morrell Hall last night

What, one might ask, would have happened in halls if this snow had fallen on Friday night?  Would instant arrangements have been made to make lots of staff come in on an otherwise weekend day off to clear snow and so on?  No, wardens, coupled with security at night and on call back up where necessary would have had to have coped.

Indeed, today, just as soon as it was decided to close Gipsy Lane I made my way back to the hall and offered to take the warden bag and remain on site, on call, so that staff could be allowed to go home as staff on other sites had been allowed to do for their own safety.

But other problems will remain, indeed probably be exacerbated, by getting rid of wardens as proposed if this happens next year, even if this is repeated on a week night when the hall office and staff may have been around during the day.  For it is even less likely that concierge staff due to start at 10pm each night will be able to make it in (though to do justice to our current security staff, both of mine made their way in on time last night and even helped to clear snow during the night), and there will be no officially responsible person living on site to cope in such a situation, whereas wardens, well, assuming we’re not actually stuck somewhere else, we’d be stuck here, with nothing to do but help care for the security and welfare of our home community.

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Brookes student begins Atlantic rowing challenge today

Posted by Jock Coats on January 4th, 2010

You may have noticed back in an OnStream article late last year that we had a Business School undergraduate, Tom Heal, entered into the Woodvale Challenge Atlantic rowing race with his friend Will Smith.  They will, if they complete the race, be the youngest ever two person team to row across an ocean.

Well owing to bad weather in the Canary Islands for much of the last month the race start has been delayed since December 6th originally.  But today they got underway.  You can follow Will and Tom’s progress on the race website from their radio beacon signal, and through their occasional blog from the boat.

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Office parties…

Posted by Jock Coats on December 21st, 2009

…’Tis the season for office parties, and on Friday we welcomed the return of the Brookes staff Christmas “event” down at Morals Bar. The group I was with was somewhat late so missed the advertised carol singing (hint – don’t advertise such participatory things up front in future, just surprise us with them when we arrive!) but when we did get there there were a good few left, from Finance, Learning Resources and other departments.

Morals Bar (but not the staff party!)

Morals Bar (but not the staff party!)

The lack of anything remotely resembling beer was a bit of a disappointment, but then as it is my local at least I was expecting it and managed to bags the only four bottles of Old Speckled Hen at the knock down price of £2.50 a bottle (500ml) which are usually £3.50!

But I was thinking, perhaps, if we have another one, and if we have something like an SCR Association going, just perhaps, we could persuade Steve to get a little polypin of some decent ale in, just for Christmas? I’m sure if it had not all been drunk by staff that when they let the “customers” in later at 10pm, they would have polished it off for us – after all, they’ve been starved of beer all semester!).

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Locked out!

Posted by Jock Coats on December 21st, 2009

Further to my moan about the new staff facilities, or lack of them, at Gipsy Lane the other day, I noticed that even the new staff dining area was today all locked up, and, or so it seems, there’s no prospect of it being opened again before the Christmas break, not even for us to get our food in the main food court and go an eat it in the staff area.

Funny thing – after the last exams today it is really just the staff who are about, and we have to stay here until 24th December. Still, the Waitrose desktop picnic will suffice for today and tomorrow, but such a shame I had to go on a foraging expedition to Headington to get it, and still missed wherever this fabulous new chocolatier is.

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How do you view Halls of Residence? Hotels or communities?

Posted by Jock Coats on December 16th, 2009

Some of you will know that there’s a proposal doing the rounds radically to alter the way we provide security and support in Halls of Residence. This will mean, at present at least (we are still in the “consultation” phase), that we will no longer have Hall Wardens. That role will be replaced partly by what the university calls “Senior Residents” who will be students paid by the hour for being on call in each hall in the early evening, and for meeting up and maintaining contact with a defined group of student residents each, and then through the night by a new full time, permanent, and up all night post of “Concierge”, whilst we will be hoping to bring the security service in-house to back them up, though there will only be one security guard roving around the city based halls on demand.

New blocks currently being built on Marston Rd

New blocks currently being built on Marston Rd

Clearly, as someone who snapped up the opportunity to commit myself to the twenty-four hours a day Brookes community by being a Warden not long after I started working here I am not unbiased: I believe that the continuity and experience of senior-ish figures from other parts of the university living within our halls is essential; if, that is we are able to be visible enough to exert such an influence, which at the moment we are largely not. Sadly, we know all to well that the Warden service has been undermined over a period of years owing mainly to management decisions which have led to what the proposals document calls a service “increasingly stretched and challenged in a number of areas”. And whilst we were often the first to warn about such a gradual diminution when the various changes were made, as well as to suggest ways it could be improved in the intervening time, it is now Wardens who face the chop in the name of rectifying the deficiencies created by tinkering with a system that the document also says “in the past worked well”.

As part of the consultation I have done lots of research into what goes on in other HEIs’ halls. 50 out of 58 I have looked at use a system similar to Hall Wardens – often with very senior university staff and academics being the visible “face” of the hall providing continuity and helping to develop a culture in each that helps make the hall more marketable – in a much more comprehensive way than we have ever done. And I have put forward an alternative scheme to that proposed which beefs up the role of Warden to that of “community leader” wiyj many other opportunities to increase the “collegial culture” of each hall through creating things like Junior Common Room committees that will let student residents get more involved from day one and help provide continuity from one year to the next.

But, as was said in the Joint Staff Committee today (Tuesday), my proposal depends on a fairly fundamentally different view of what we want halls of residence to be than the proposal, or, apparently, current thinking in that area (despite the preponderance of other institutions who clearly think differently). They tell us that students have made it clear that they want more independence, more of a hotel atmosphere and to be left to get on with things by themselves without us attempting to cajole them into being part of a “community”.

Now, I’m not sure where this student opinion cited comes from: I don’t believe there has been a comprehensive survey done. I seriously hope they are not relying on the annual halls satisfaction survey, done in November each year, which has a woefully low return rate and is often completed, as is often the case, by those who already have a gripe (dare one suggest that if they do crave independence, they are really looking for freedom from what they sometimes feel to be intrusion and hassle from the domestic management imposing penalties on, how shall we call them, the less fastidious at housekeeping?). And even if one has been done, which is not cited in the report, I have to say that we are not here to do what the majority thinks as much as be here for when they do need support and for those who need more support throughout their time in halls.

I also suggest that halls, especially as restricted as ours currently are to first year students, need to be a stepping stone. Yes it is often their first opportunity to experience independent living, but at the same time coming to university, especially if its far from home, is a big change in peoples’ lives, straight out of school as most will be. Halls should be seen not as a completely “independent” lifestyle into which all are ready to leap, but as a preparation for it, an easing into independence. Our more vocal local neighbours also feel that the year most students have in halls is our one chance to instil in them a sense of community and responsibility before we “inflict” them, as they see it, on their streets as neighbours.

Applicants too, at least those who go to the length of asking on forums such as the Student Room website, appear to be most concerned to apply for halls that have a good “community” feel. And it is notable that people are told to steer clear of some of our halls, especially the outlying ones, precisely because previous members feel there was not such a community spirit in them. An identifiable culture would, perhaps, make these halls, challenged by their location or facilities, more marketable, which will be increasingly important as we move towards a situation where we are able to offer returning students more years in halls – we will want them to be places that they want to remain a part of when otherwise they could be living out.

At the Senior Management Conference in October 2008 at which the main business was early discussion of the University Strategy 20:20’s “Green Paper” when we were discussing the “Student Experience” theme, several people suggested, and I certainly heard no objection, that our halls should be much more collegiate, with a sense of identity each and fostering perhaps different cultures, creating a “tradition” that would help new arrivals feel they had actually arrived somewhere they could immediately feel a part of.

We have gone on to make that “Student Experience” theme the main strand of the Strategy, and to talk about how to develop in our students the “soft skills” and what we are calling “graduate attributes” that we feel will help them stand out from the crowd when they move on from university. With some 70% of their time spent off the main teaching campuses and often in halls, where better to begin this process than by creating the sort of communities in which they can get involved, in halls? And nor does any of this have to impinge on their “independence” if that is really what they want. Those who don’t want to get involved don’t have to, but we ought to want to provide them with the opportunity to do so, and to have support, from peers and from perhaps wiser adult heads when they find they need it.

To quote from the web pages of Wantage Hall at Reading:

A good university hall of residence should not simply be somewhere convenient where the students happen to live, it should be a community, and an integral and important part of the total university experience…Different people need different things out of their time at university. Never mind, there are lots of other nice halls at the University of Reading, and, because we don’t try to make them all the same, you’ll almost certainly be able to find one that suits you…No matter how diligent a university student you are, you will spend more time away from your academic department than in it. And quite right, too: university is about more than lectures, essays, and exams — vital as these are. And if you live in hall, most of your time will be spent here. It is important therefore that your hall community offers a social context that suits you.

Is that ethos something we should be aiming for? Or somehow “too traditional” for our students? Certainly I believe this issue needs wider debate and agreement before making peremptory changes in the support that halls receive. For myself, however, if these proposals are accepted more or less as currently proposed, I suspect I shall probably be looking elsewhere not just for accommodation. In many ways I have put advancement in my career in IT on the back-burner preferring to make the most of that commitment to the twenty-four hour community that is Brookes, and it will be very difficult to think of the university quite the same if they dismiss that commitment in this way.

You can read the university’s proposals and my alternative proposal as .pdf files.

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Paying for Space…

Posted by Jock Coats on December 15th, 2009

One of the most frequently asked questions from colleagues to me as a governor goes along the lines of “how can we justify the expenditure on Space To Think?” or sometimes “how are we able to afford the money for Space to Think?” usually accompanied by “with these cuts are we just robbing Peter to pay Paul?”

Artist's impression of the latest design for the New Library and Teaching Building

Artist's Impression of the latest designs for the New Library and Teaching Building.

Well, one thing of which you can be certain is that the Board of Governors, whose primary responsibility is to ensure the financial stability of the university, would not take any decisions that we felt would in any way put that at risk. The current round of savings being proposed that each school and directorate must meet over the next few years are actually nothing to do with the Space to Think costs. The university has shown that it can make healthy enough surpluses at present to be able to afford the portion of the cost we are likely to want to borrow. They are primarily related to two issues – that we want to have the financial capacity to invest in areas that will help us achieve the goals of the emerging 20:20 University Strategy, and a recognition that there are leaner times ahead for all universities as a result of likely funding changes in what we are being hinted at is going to be a difficult few years of public spending.

But the main point is that we consider that we cannot not spend money on the estate. We are increasingly aware that our current buildings simply do not match up to peoples’ expectations, especially when they have visited the many other institutions that have spent considerable sums creating bright new campus facilities which match better the contemporary needs of students and and the teaching environment. In any case much of the funding will actually come from our ability to save substantial sums on expensive planned maintenance on other existing buildings that will be put out of action by the new spaces. Over the lifetime of the Masterplan it is expected that we will be able to lose around a third of the existing floor space as the new building will be able to be used more efficiently than some of our current grossly underused space (our average space usage is as low as 16% in the current estate – think what that means in terms of energy costs and maintenance to keep spaces open all the time when they are used so little for example);

But yes, there will be borrowing to pay for it: borrowing that will likely cost us less per year than maintaining those wasted spaces. There will be another round of scrutiny by governors and the Audit and Finance and Resources committee in particular owing to the unexpected delay caused by having to redesign the building to get it through planning, probably in the autumn, before any final commitment is made.

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