City Law School Academics and the move to Open Plan

The City Law School Academic staff, around 60 people, are in the process of being moved to the basement of Myddleton Building, which is an open plan office space. The move is said to be temporary – until the new Law School building is built – but the problems are multifold. Firstly, many staff have indicated that they will not be able to carry out the work they are contracted to do in an open plan space, second: the move was decided without any staff or union consultation, third, although part of the staff have already been moved and the remainder will be moved by end of July, there isn’t as yet sufficient space to meet with students, make phone or skype calls, or work quietly, to store books and papers, the Myddleton office refit isn’t yet complete, with construction still taking place while CLS staff need to continue to work, and the fear exists among staff that the move to open plan will be replicated in the new Sebastian Street building and across the university. Finally, two CLS UCU reps, Grietje Baars and Mazen Masri, were subjected to intimidation and victimisation for speaking out against the move on behalf of their colleagues.

It is a matter of fact that for most people, tasks that require a high degree of concentration and focus, are not possible to carry out in an open plan office. This includes research and writing and many other tasks (across different roles in the university). An open plan office forces people to work from home or elsewhere and this disproportionately negatively impacts, 1) women, BAME people, and sexual minorities, who due to the gender and race pay gap tend to have lower salaries and thus are more likely to live in rented, shared accommodation and unlikely to have space to work at home; 2) people with disabilities and health (e.g. back) conditions who may find it more difficult to find an accessible workspace elsewhere, or who need special desks, chairs etc which they don’t have at home or in e.g. the British Library – and those with mental health conditions which are triggered or exacerbated by the situation not the least stress and anxiety.

It is also an ongoing practice in the City Law School that when a research & teaching employee does not produce the required 3 or 4* (world-leading) REF-able articles each year, they are directly penalised by an increase in teaching hours the following year. Retention and promotion are subject to academic output. CLS academic staff have upwards of 60 personal tutees each, in addition to the students they teach and see in office hours, LLB and LLM dissertation supervisees and PhD students. All of these require a private and safe space for meeting, mentoring and support, at scheduled times but often also on an ad hoc basis. The NSS scores for law are directly related to the personal support and individual feedback students receive from their tutors. Thus, with a lack of meeting spaces and quiet working space for writing, City stands to lose dramatically in the key rankings of the REF and NSS, which will have disastrous student recruitment and thus financial consequences. Additionally, the move is triggered by a decision to get rid of the flagship Gray’s Inn premises, which has been one of the main selling points for the CLS professional programmes, and so again is likely to have a negative impact on student numbers.

The School of Health Sciences has moved to open plan, a decision that has been described by many SHS staff as deleterious. For the reasons mentioned above in relation to CLS specifically, but also because of the experience of SHS staff, and the copious amounts of internationally published research documenting the negative effects of open plan on productivity and staff mental health and retention, it is clear that this situation is unacceptable.

As UCU Reps we have a lot of other things on our plates and other battles to fight. The open plan office issue may seem relatively minor. But with dozens of workers simply unable to do their jobs they are contracted to do, with potentially disastrous impacts on the REF and student education and experience, this is rather fundamental. Ultimately this decision is financially motivated (other suitable office spaces are available to rent locally) and part of a growing trend to treat the university as a business, where managers exploit students and staff to create a fancy-looking enterprise where real education and research are no longer thought important.