PhD students are still a waste of space (update)

Given the widespread support I received from other research students and academics, I felt it pertinent to post an update on the status of the desk debacle described in my last entry.

How and why do things like this happen? Like most academics, I don't mind lashing out at central university administration/managers - notoriously motivated by financial concerns and profit margins - for making poor decisions that affect academic life. In this case, however, according to my university's regulations, as a fee-paying student nearing submission, I am still entitled to the equitable use of university. The "University administration" had not suggested otherwise. Instead, it was my department that had chosen to revoke the workspaces of its research students two months prior to the end of their registrations even though the university gives us the right to use its facilities. Through a gray and murky loophole in wording, the department had chosen to remove itself from the overarching category of "university facilities", restricting this to the university library alone.

To add insult to injury, the department had not taken any steps to notify or consult with students in the final months of their write-ups before making the decision to revoke their privileges within the building. This caused stress, anxiety and a feeling of helplessness amongst students. It is difficult enough entering this unsure time - with heightened deadline pressures and the weight of three to four years of exponentially untenable life/work balances compressing the spine - that losing workspaces should really not come into the equation.

When academics feel that something is rotten in HE, they go to their departmental staff for support. Where could we turn, given that this was an internal act?

Through email and consultation with our supervisors, we fought against the decision and had it overturned (more or less). After an inundation of requests and demands from students that we be allowed to stay in our offices until our registration periods expire, the department has relented and will allow this audacious behavior – working until we're done – to continue as expected. However, I have been forewarned that "furniture will need to be moved" in August, despite any disruption that this may cause. So, rather than shoving the old workhorses out the back door to make way for new recruits, we'll all be crammed into one room. It’s going to be a stuffy August.

The good part: I received unwavering support from my supervisor who was equally baffled by the decision. Student representatives and the student’s union got involved. Senior staff and student advisors know much more about the needs of students and it boggles the mind how these things get through the net without seeking advice and approval from supervisors or the students themselves. Plus, the whole affair has also brought some of the students together and allowed us to reflect on our academic environments, expectations and disappointments.

Of course, this is not just about desks. Problems with space on campuses are perennial and students are not unreasonable. We are likely to share desks, books and facilities and are very rarely proprietary about them. Instead of the issue at hand, it was the unilateral decision-making and disrespect that it implied which were toxic for my department. Some students remain worried about speaking out against the decision, and there is still talk of us losing our spaces, especially for those continuing to extend their work beyond a "standard" registration period. But students who are extending their courses are still paying fees for this reason; they are still students and they still need somewhere to work.

Furthermore, both the original decision and the revised position allowing us to stay at our desks were transmitted second- or third-hand. This has provoked a general sense of detachment. Various statements and allusions made by unnamed persons appear to imply that research students who need more time to write (i.e, failures) are somehow surreptitiously profiting off the department's lack of space by asking to stay at their desks until submission. It has made some of us feel uneasy and as if we were doing something wrong. Is it the fault of research students who have been accepted to undertake their PhDs in a department that the administration of said department has, through mismanagement, run out of space and offered no alternative?

Academics' complaining about a hard life is a joke to most working people, so I think we just tend to take the good with the bad and count ourselves lucky. The truth is that no one really wants to be the one to complain. I was pleased to learn that I wasn't the only one who felt this way and, more importantly, that I'm not the only one notices what academia will be reduced to if we're not careful. In comparison to most things, losing my desk is a small problem, but it is merely one representative example of a much larger problem that any one of us can be affected by.

By airing these views, I do not wish to shame my own department, whose academic members I greatly respect and appreciate, but to draw to light conditions endemic to higher education when fundamental tenets of workplace logic are forgotten or ignored by a few unchallenged managers. In the end, nothing I have said here is revolutionary in the least, unless respect, equality in the workplace and a vested interest in departmental conviviality are things that we shouldn't naturally expect.

I hope that others can learn from the unfortunate mistakes recounted here and choose instead to uphold the integrity of the academic process and support its bottom feeders (the students).


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