PGRs ‘should be at the heart of academic workplace transformation’

A new Aude report finds that better use of workplace space could improve PGRs’ research outcomes and help their mental health

A discussion paper considering how workplace space is designed and allocated for those undertaking a PhD has been published by Aude (the Association of University Directors of Estates).

Bidding to use the “tremendous opportunity” to rethink space usage in the wake of Covid-enforced changes in practice, the paper looks at how environs might be utilised to improve both institutional research outcomes and postgraduate reseachers’ (PGR) mental health.

“For so long, [PGRs] have fallen between staff and students, lacking targeted strategies on what they need to succeed,” said Dr Samantha Hall, principal director at Campus Intuition, a specialist higher education design research consultancy which supported the new paper. “Rethinking the workspace for this cohort presents a tremendous opportunity.

“It isn’t just about a desk, it is a connection to the establishment, a home base, a means for networking and creating a community that will stay with them beyond finishing their degree. These networks are powerful assets.

“When space is done poorly, PGRs lose motivation and become disengaged. They feel neglected by their university, and this risks poor mental health outcomes. As we think sector-wide about the changing role of PGRs, space must be part of the conversation.”

Read more: Aude queries how universities will afford government’s net-zero targets

The single biggest workplace change that could improve PGR life, found the paper, was substituting hot desking in favour of areas where people could work without having to routinely move all of their research materials.

“I have no office in my shared house, so I’ve been predominantly working from the foot of my bed for the last 18 months,” said one PGR, quoted in the paper from a Russell Group report, and typical of the overall findings. “It would be great to have a permanent presence on campus.”

The paper found that, compared to groups more regularly attending campus, such as teaching staff or undergraduates, PGRs’ rather more ad hoc appearances often led to them falling between the cracks of space provision.

“There is no single model that solves all spatial issues, but there are creative opportunities, such as moving students to different spaces as they progress through research,” said Charlotte Livingston Lewis, joint chair of Aude’s space management group and head of strategic programmes and governance at the University of Warwick.

““This group should be at the heart of academic workplace transformation. A stronger focus on community management will enable spaces to work more effectively.”

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