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The new university: space, place and identity

Whitton, Peter David (2018) The new university: space, place and identity. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

Over the last two decades, campus redevelopment in the UK and worldwide has accelerated. University building activity is frequently justified by architects and managers as responding to ‘market forces’. These claims are reflected in institutional discourses about campus redesign and a growing academic and media interest in the organisational space of universities. Discourses often emphasise the positive transformative effects of redevelopment without considering the wider impact on the everyday life of the university. This thesis explores the relationship between institutional space and the construction of individual, social and professional identities, using a case study describing a ten-year campus transformation project at Manchester Metropolitan University. Over this period, the university aimed to: consolidate the number of individual campuses from seven to two; provide new ‘world-class’ facilities for staff and students; create opportunities for ‘improved’ teaching and research activity; and develop the university brand. In real terms, this meant closing existing campus locations and relocating staff and students to an ‘iconic’ new building containing open plan academic offices and flexible student pods. The management discourse around this ambitious building project revealed a deterministic stance, predicting a variety of ‘improvements’ to academic working practices, student satisfaction and efficiency as a result of these environmental changes. Viewed as a whole, these spatial manipulations were intended to influence internal and external perceptions of identity and act as an indicator of successful change management. Three interpretive approaches are used to examine the social production of a new university space: thematic; visual; and dispositive analysis. The analysis uses the work of Lefebvre, Foucault, and de Certeau to argue that specific discursive, non-discursive and material/spatial techniques are bound together in the imaginations of university management. These techniques are then employed to dismantle ‘outdated’ working practices in an attempt to ‘spatially fix’ particular new conceptions of academic labour and professional identity that fit with the neo-liberal university project. Lefebvre’s spatial triad is used to structure the discussion around three research questions that focus on the creation of identities via the conceived space of institutional designers, the perceived space of work activities and the emotionally lived space of university life in the new building. The research revealed a conceptual void apparent in the design of university buildings where spatial aesthetics are appropriated from other sectors to ‘fix’ the problems inherent in academic capitalism. The data show how particular spatial arrangements are used to discipline academic labour and encourage particular managerially sanctioned working practices. The thesis also demonstrates the lack of recognition given to physical artefacts and personalisation of space in the design of academic offices and the detrimental effect that this has on staff identity.

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