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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic #13

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The latest in a series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the front line of architectural education. This week: The Transfer Window

Did we miss out on a lot of targets? No. Was it disappointing? No. We tried to get some great players to join Manchester United and for different reasons we couldn’t get them.’ – David Moyes, Manchester United manager

Colleagues are often surprised to hear I am a keen football supporter. Sometimes I find it helps break the ice between the student-tutor relations. Makes them realise I have a life outside of academia. Sometimes.

And just like most things today, part of the fun is about the background story we read about in the papers. Football is no exception with the mass-media frenzy for the closing of the summer transfer window. Never has so much TV coverage been allocated to confirm the handover of employment contracts via fax. THE FAX.

What has emerged from this summer’s transfer window is the farce of some team’s (off field, boardroom) performance. The broken transfer deals are blamed due to the complexity of Football Teams management structure. Too many steps to overcome.

I sympathise with David Moyes. Sometimes the decisions rest on other board member’s judgment, except it is the manager seen at the front end having to deal with the resulting mess.

Sky Sports transfer/deadline day news

I have been there myself many times. Behind what most of us are familiar with as Schools of Architecture, lies an entire institution/corporation* (*delete as appropriate) - the University. In some cases the school is only a department within a larger faculty, most commonly Art & Design or Built Environment, adding another level of management to deal with. In their eyes, a School of Architecture is just another department.

Sometimes, a request for something seemingly straightforward for teaching requires careful negotiation from course directors, head of school, and possibly even the Dean or other directors. Only for the university’s health and safety rep to send you a last minute email putting a stop to it in case someone gets hurt. I only wanted my students to survey a building.

Then there is the constant hoop jumping required for University league tables, student satisfaction and student experience. Tagline…‘Come to university for the education experience’ because we cannot market a good education to you - just in case you are not very bright.

Does this feel familiar to the readers working in practice? The design and production of architecture is never so straightforward with several design decisions taken away from the designer. It is exactly the same in academia, except that most of these decisions are often colleagues of your own employer and not external clients, consultants, planners.

In academia, the university is the maker of its own mess

In academia, the university is the maker of its own mess, with the lecturer often ending up with having to explain to students why they cannot have all the necessary resources to teach. But at least we don’t have press conferences like our footballing counterparts.

Thus, late summer becomes a frantic period of political and financial negotiations with our line managers in order to get everything in place for the start of term (deadline day). It gets increasingly fraught if we don’t even know what our budget is – even a week before the first students start. This happens more often then you’d want to believe.

Budgets are set once we have final student numbers and this doesn’t occur until after ‘clearing’ which brings its own difficulties. Every course always has to make more offers than we have space for, as not everyone accepts the offer. Then it is a game of chance to see if we land on the right number of acceptances that fall within our quota set by the Government. Too many or not enough and we get penalised. Financially. UEFA financial fair play rules anyone?

This takes us up to about now (mid September) and then we get the go ahead to start booking things in. First up: tutors. Several calls later and several rejections later, the list of available tutors diminish very quickly. Good tutors are hard to keep – often getting snapped up by bigger clubs, err, I mean schools. Universities sway them with larger salaries or with a quicker employment process.

Once we have an agreed list, it is a rush to get all the paperwork sorted before the deadline. Luckily, it’s not as late in the night as the football transfer deadline, but still…

There is always a spending spree at the start of the summer

Next is equipment. There is always a spending spree at the start of the summer with each Department not wanting to leave money unspent. Think of it like all the councils suddenly undertaking lots of unnecessary road improvements to spend their last pots of money just before the financial year ends.

But by the time we get to the end of the summer, the course will take a whole new direction so then another spending spree occurs for all the items which were not considered beforehand. A short flutter with the stationary supplier ensues.

Finally - studio space. Most universities now have an open booking system where every single room can be booked out. Forces course timetables to be more efficient apparently. If not properly organised, courses may find themselves unable to teach in their own building. Explain that to the students.

While this all sounds very last minute, I have never seen the Sky Sports News team outside our offices updating every motion. Exciting it is not. Neither is it disorganised. It is carefully orchestrated and pre-planned, but there is always a risk of getting caught short.

However, this year, we have managed to confirm all our summer signings early. Our final team line-up is confirmed. We are ready for the long season ahead.

I wish more journalists covered these aspects of this profession. It might make it sound more exciting; even help demystify what we do. But then we might get students thinking they know more about how to teach them then we do. A bit like football fans saying their 10 pence on the latest team formation. That could prove problematic. I take it back - somethings are best left unsaid.

Normal service will resume shortly. At least then I will be able to write about architecturally relevant issues.

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