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Will Lancaster University’s Spine project ever be finished?

Between having a job interview at Lancaster University in Jan 2016 and starting work in January 2017, a major engineering project was commissioned – the rebuilding of the central ‘spine’, or outdoor walkway that links the whole campus together, north-south. A 2016 article has it thus: “According to tender documents, the aim is “to remodel and upgrade the Spine to provide a vibrant, light, safe, weather protected route, offering a variety of environments along its length, reinforcing its identity as the main campus thoroughfare”. Rick Mather Architects did the design, and you can see it here on a video. Mather were involved from 2014, tenders were called for in Feb 2016, and building started in July or August 2016.

SCAN-1It was clear that work needed to be done. Parts of the campus are old. Alex Square, in the middle, was already repaved and fixed up some years ago, but the walkways connecting to it had not been.

The staff and the students have now been living with this project for almost a year and a half. The Spine has been blocked off, progressively, to allow building works and re-laying of the paving, some of it dating back to the early days of the university (which was founded in 1964 and moved to the current site in ’68).  The overhead canopy (which we have because of rain and snow, not sun) is also being replaced, some with green roofing on top (vegetation, to provide insulation and water retention).

All sounds good, but we are all wondering when the disruption is going to end. After 18 months only two less-frequented bits, at the north end, seem to be finished. Yet the official  web says the project is ending “Spring 2018” [I last looked here on 2 Feb 2018-will they quietly alter it?]. There are frequent diversion notices elsewhere, in and out of buildings and across courtyards.  Despite these, as a new employee, I frequently found myself baffled or lost in the early months – as I have got to know the place, this happens less often. But pity the occasional visitor –  people attending university graduations for example, before Xmas break. There are several lessons for this daily observer, that emerge from the project.

  1. Big projects often overrun. This one has done so. After a year and a half, is is still not possible to walk from one end of the campus to the other. The main Alex Square, the hub of the campus, is blocked off (although usually open, end Jan 18 when I posted this).
  2. Project management needs to be really good. We teach PM on campus. But despite that,  it is not very visible, at least from the point of view of the people using the walkways. How come the main Square entrances, where the majority of the foot traffic is, weren’t completed early in the project or during university vacations, to avoid disruption? Both, or one or the other, have now been blocked off for months. One person who works in management at the university said to me ‘why can’t they just finish one bit before moving to the next?’ (this applies to the North Spine).
  3. Keep everybody fully informed. Diversion signs are ok, but if you issue a notice to all staff and students about a diversion to allow works for X weeks, please get it done in that period. We were somewhat dismayed to hear that there would be 10 weeks of work occurring right during semester 1 of late 2017, on the south Square entrance walkway, when it could have been done much more expediently in the holidays.  Returning to work in January 2018, the barriers were still in place and the semester had started. The diversion page says now says till February, but when? 1 Feb has now arrived.  There has been no reason given as to why this target has not been met (the effect of bad weather in this part of the world must surely have been factored in already?). No pavers have been laid yet and there is a big hole, probably to do with fixing the rather poor underground drainage which I am sure was in a bad state and needed extra work. So this work at the ‘entrance to south spine’ is going to run and run. The north Square entrance is supposed to be blocked for three weeks – it has already been far longer than that.
  4. It is quite likely that contractors may have disagreements with the commissioning agency at some stage on any big project. In this case it was with Lancaster’s Facilities, who were,  the campus gossip said, already exasperated with slow progress.  There was a strike by the contractors in late 2017, eventually resolved but we got no information about why or how. Even during downed tools, though, the walkways were not opened up temporarily to let us through. Even where the blocked bit was safe because they hadn’t really done much there yet. Hard on the business owners up and down the spine, whose takings must be diminished. Further discussion is on the campus subtext, which says (issue 1/2/18) the scope of the project turned out to be a bit much for one of the contractors.
  5. Think local, partly for environmental reasons. Outside my building, some new shady deciduous trees were planned and appear in the original architect’s video, to enhance a courtyard. But we ended up with three pine trees from southern Germany instead (I was told), not trees from our surrounds. They were winched into place, fully  grown, at unknown cost. Seeing only their tops moving, from my upper floor office, was surreal. A small fern also appeared in a special metal grille the walkway, was destined to grow, but lasted a week before it disappeared. It was right where we walk outside LEC.  We have a bunch of plant scientists and ecologists in our unit – apparently their earlier suggestions on vegetation made during the planning phase, fell on fallow ground.
  6. Repeat lesson 2. Only do pneumatic drilling, or complete blockages to essential areas (like Alex Square) when the university is not in its teaching period. The difference? In semester, up to 13,000 people moving about. In the university holidays – several hundred. To say it has been hard to work to get around, and concentrate despite the drilling noise (which is needed, but not at peak hours please), is an understatement.

I did manual work for a number for a number of years. It is hard graft. The key is to get good project management (materials and physical plant delivery, for example) and to have enough workers on site to meet the targets. This means a budget that does not undercut project delivery (requiring  overtime, for example- I see a little of that by Henry Boot but not much- hardly anybody around in the late afternoon, for the first year). Who knows what is going on here, but perhaps it is a bit like academic teaching, where we have too few people, stretched too thinly?

Any university managers reading this are going to hate me, but this project reminds me very much of  Bent Flyvbjerg‘s work on project overruns (paper at academia with login needed). He works on analysing larger construction projects than this one, but the gist is that front-end estimates of costs and benefits – used in the business cases, cost–benefit analyses, and social and environmental impact assessments that typically support decisions on projects – are commonly significantly different from actual ex post costs and benefits,” and they are “ Over budget, over time, over and over again“.  There may be lessons for this rather smaller endeavour – plan for risks, threats, and human nature. And communicate and apologise. The webpage tells you what is going on, but never the latter (update – I noticed they started doing that after I wrote this).


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Socially just publishing: implications for geographers and their journals

Batterbury SPJ. 2017. Socially just publishing: implications for geographers and their journals. Fennia: international journal of Geography. 195(2): 175-181 DOI: 10.11143/fennia.66910

Available from here, scroll down

Or on Researchgate

This may be the most important article I have ever written (although not the longest). Academic publishing needs change, and prefiguring that change has implications for hiring committees, senior academics, and scholars of all types.  Part of a Reflections series on academic publishing in geography.

Abstract: There have been a range of protests against the high journal subscription costs, and author processing charges (APCs) levied for publishing in the more prestigious and commercially run journals that are favoured by geographers. But open protests across the sector like the ‘Academic Spring’ of 2012, and challenges to commercial copyright agreements, have been fragmented and less than successful. I renew the argument for ‘socially just’ publishing in geography. For geographers this is not limited to choosing alternative publication venues. It also involves a considerable effort by senior faculty members that are assessing hiring and promotion cases, to read and assess scholarship independently of its place of publication, and to reward the efforts of colleagues that offer their work as a public good. Criteria other than the citation index and prestige of a journal need to be foregrounded. Geographers can also be publishers, and I offer my experience editing the free online Journal of Political Ecology.

FENNIA is a non-profit peer-reviewed open access journal published by the Geographical Society of Finland since 1889.

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Fluid geographies

Satizábal P. and Batterbury, S.P.J. 2017. Fluid geographies: marine territorialisation and the scaling up of local aquatic epistemologies on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12199

RGS ‘Geography Directions’ publicity article

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Reclaiming Australian public universities

I entered the ‘neoliberalisation of higher education’  debate with some trepidation this year. After nearly 14 years in Australia, I realised that the gradual loss of the public university, and the many academic and professional freedoms associated with employment within one as a result of increased competitiveness and cost savings, is what I and my colleagues were witnessing. The last straw for me was an edict from my former Faculty at Melbourne in 2014  [and now being adopted by the most recent Faculty], to set ‘targets’ for individual academic performance geared to your status (in other words, if you don’t meet them you are up for a rough ride, and potentially the ejector seat). It was the insistence on getting a certain research grant income that got to me – actually we should be praised for saving the university and the country money, and doing our research cheaply and with dedication. We don’t all need large sums from research councils.  Praise does come for doing our teaching really well, and for writing stuff  –  but my vision is that writing needs to be read by the intended audience, and thus there is usually no need to use the commercial academic publishers that cost our universities so much money.

I had never heard of such an edict requiring scholars  to get research funds since I started teaching in 1993, seven universities ago. When you look at the only major source of funding in Australia for people like me, the success rate hovers around 15.2% so it is not an easy proposition. It is even harder to fund research if you are one of the 50% or so of lecturers that has no stable long term contract.

Unfortunately, cheap research and social responsibility  aren’t quite what the university management wanted (preferring income  from grants, and recognition through top publications, patents, industry engagement etc).  I concluded we needed an international campaign to preserve what is left of academic freedom in Australia, as we buckle down to our 60 hour weeks with the normal passion most of us reserve for teaching and research.

I discovered Halfmann and Radder’s work on the situation in the neoliberalised Dutch universities, and ended up writing a reply paper about Australia  with Jason Byrne here in an international collection dealing with 14 countries.   or


People told me we have the analysis about right, but see what you think.

I am just one small player – here is another initiative led by Kristen Lyons et al.

And here is an evolving  collection on ‘abolishing the university’, edited by the director of the Open Library of the Humanities, Martin Eve , and Lou Dear

An Ephemera collection on The labour of academia’, 2017.

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Back to Boston: the AAGs, 2017

I haven’t lived in the US since 2004 (I spent 7 yrs there in total, leaving before a vital Green Card never came), but every few years I attend the American Association of Geographers annual meetings. The reasons are several – I was educated in the US for 3 yrs and taught there too for 4 yrs; the event is fun and often inspiring; and quite often I can combine it with other things. This year might be the last time I attend for a while, so it has been useful to take stock. Boston was the first place I landed in 1987, before moving onto Worcester, Massachusetts for grad school. This year, the AAGs were in Boston.

This year, the academic workforce and scholarly people more generally have a lot on their plate. There is the US divided by insane politics (Trump bombed Syria just as I was in a conference panel) and many political and economic woes in the UK, where I live most of the the year. There are two major issues. Firstly, for scientists and non-scientists alike, what is the point of our work if the whole search for truth that we are engaged in, is now imperiled by a quotidian distrust of experts in general,  environmentalists in particular, and notions of scientific truth? I organised a session in this in March in the UK on this new form of post-truth populism. Current US policy is designed by assertion rather than truths  – buoyed up by the right wing press, social media snippets and soundbytes, and by Presidential executive orders and decrees that form policy  along the lines of good/evil, right/wrong, American/non-American rather than balanced and tolerant appraisal in the democratic spirit. The media, and the public, have risen to embrace populist politics, unfortunately. If the President’s office is dismantling climate mitigation measures and withdrawing funding and the EPA’s budget, hiring extreme right wingers to judicial and civil service posts, trying to seal off Mexico from the US, and barring entry to some foreigners based on ascribed identity, clearly geographers and their ilk are not winning the debate. At all. And Federal funding for research that the government doesn’t approve of, will diminish, too.


AAG Boston 2017 – Geographers March for Science


AAG Boston 2017 – protest material on absent geographers, etc.

The conference held several sessions to debate these issues. There were some on the implications of the Trump presidency, although I missed them. There was also support for scientists’ protest actions  (photo) and  the remnants of a protest held in Copley Sq were also posted up and added-to in the building, to support banned colleagues  (photo). The AAG is in a  tight spot, since several conference participants were denied entry to the US on grounds of their nationality, and issuing a statement of supporting principles was not quite enough to halt a solidarity boycott of the event, for this reason. Many people from Canada, for example, refused to attend (including in my own sessions).

The gist among the argument among Americans I talked to or listened to, was that it was better to fight the current regime and its backers from within; find new audiences and coalitions, and if necessary wait things out til the end of the 4 year term. They have gone beyond embarrassment about politics, to anger. This has not yet happened in the UK with Brexit, which is in some respects more permanently xenophobic and destructive, although unlikely to result in any war or widespread destitution [Cynical election just called for June 8 2017…] But the multiple paradigms of knowledge visible in previous AAG meetings did not seem perturbed in many conference sessions – few people addressed head-on that their findings on climate or land use change, for example, lay counter to current government thinking and should be challenging it. But one session with Rebecca Lave, Noel Castree, Stuart Lane and  others – senior enough to say what they like – did address the point, and more.  I don’t go to many science-heavy sessions, so I would be interested to hear from others that did. (I think organizing 3 sessions and speaking in others was probably a bit too much for me to fully appreciate what was going on elsewhere).


Noam Chomsky

Secondly, there was an small, sometimes imperceptible shift in the discourse of geographical and associated  work, now that the political landscape has changed. Remember that in a previous Boston AAG meeting in 1971, Dick Peet at Clark (who in fact taught me in 1988) and other radical geographers accused the discipline as a whole, and economic geographers like Brian Berry in particular,  of anodyne support for the existing corporate order, with their use of vacuous quantitative techniques that measured economic change without any commitment to understanding why it happened, or to principles of social justice. This was part of a relatively new radical geography movement in those years, that today is well ensconced in the profession and frequently guiding it. It examines the spatial elements of exploitation and injustice, and more. Among conference participants I sensed much more identification with elements of the radical perspective than its opponents  (but I  don’t go to excruciating sessions looking at optimising shopping centre and hotel location etc., that still hark back to the 1970s-I once did that stuff for a job in my 20s). Sessions dealing with justice and principles were well attended. I guess we are all searching for answers.  Over a thousand listened to Noam Chomsky (photo). Chomsky likes geography – in retirement, one thing he does is teaches a class at the University of Arizona with Marv Waterstone, a former colleague at UofA. Chomsky’s account of social injustice included his own persecution and segregation in 1930s Philadelphia, when Jewish identity was attacked, and so it was not just happening in Europe back then (he is 88!). He did remind us that such things are becoming more visible in the current political climate.  We are not yet out of the woods of intolerance – much to say there, an he said we are not yet seeing the emergence of the ‘Asian Century’ either, given US corporate dominance and its subcontracting of manufacturing in Asian countries, notably China, which has not yet replaced it. (I think I heard him say, “unfortunately” – a video will be posted).

Geographers in my own session about alternatives to mainstream, corporate publishing seemed ready for change – make our work far more available, control any financial  surplus we have from academic journals we manage (Dick Peet’s point, just after confessing the biggest mistake of his career was selling Antipode in the 1980s) and avoid bankrupting our university libraries that have to buy that same knowledge that many of us produce in the first place (as journals subscriptions). To some extent, publishing inequities are a microcosm of wider debates besetting university scholars – can we maintain academic freedom? Can we teach and research what we see fit? In this case, can we publish where we want so that we reach the right audiences, even as the industry suffers buyout after buyout, and concentrates in 5 main companies with large profits?  It was pent-up frustration in the room – we have to publish, but our work is sold for a fortune. A manifesto on this issue looks like it is in preparation as a result of the session.  In the book hall, I spent half an hour or so with several company reps from Wiley, T&F and MDPI. This was interesting, with some reps. even questioning the financial bind that publishers are in. And the ‘publications problem’ is all on top of  policymakers not listening to what we say right now….

A session on  ’50 years of radical geography at Clark’ was of particular interest to me, since I went there thirty years ago as a student. While Clark was a centre of radical thought long before I got there, it was good to hear what past geographers actually did there and elsewhere in that radical movement, and what they thought and wrote from the 60s onwards – in neighborhood solidarity movements, publishing, teaching and and other areas. They actually won – the academic disciplined changed by a few notches, they contributed to the Civil Rights movement (in Chicago and Detroit in particular), and gender equality improved somewhat on campuses too, although that was slower. As ukulele-playing  Phil O’Keefe said (no kidding-Geordie worker’s songs!), quoting somebody I have forgotten, we all need to “look up and see where the enemy is”  to survive as active and even as radical geographers. (I am never regarded as a proper radical geographer- wrong PhD supervisors perhaps, too interdisciplinary, don’t read or cite the literary canons at length…)

I sometimes wonder what happened to the esprit of the 1960s-70s radicals today  – but then I attended some of the sessions on Degrowth as a philosophy and a movement. There it is.  The degrowth exponents definitely touch on some of the radical legacy, in new ways and mostly from their bases in Europe –  through anti-capitalist behaviors and anarchist organizing and livelihoods. The sessions were particularly well attended and lasted all day. Another challenge to Trumpian capitalism and American entrepreneurial values.  (see special issue we just published on degrowth in JPE).

If there were hopeful signs of passion and engagement with the issues faced in contemporary America and beyond, through protest and a few fighting words, then they are occurring in a context where the ability to teach and research the discipline in a university or a college is definitely no better than it was before I started. Colleagues seem resigned to decades of temporary employment (a particular feature  in the US, with its odd, binary tenure/non-tenure system and few staff unions, but present in all the countries I have worked). I realized my own situation is luxurious by comparison. And, things have definitely changed since I first looked for a teaching job in 1993.

Up at Clark University in Worcester, it seemed like old times – after arriving on a much faster train to a nicer station, I went with friend Jude Fernando to a workshop on decolonization run by Amber Murrey, with Prof. Pat Daley from Oxford attending and several African scholars, notably writer Prof. Patrice Nganang.  This made for a loud happy bilingual dinner afterwards at Jude’s, who continues to tread a trailblazing path in his teaching and scholarship, now revisiting what anthropologist Edmund Leach got up to in Sri Lanka decades ago, as a way to gauge long term histories of social change, class,  and water management.  Dianne Rocheleau had a retirement party – her activities over the years, locally in Worcester and further afield in the DR and Mexico, have always been inspiring. Too inspiring – earlier at the AAG I had trouble getting through some brief closing remarks in a session organised in her honour, as did others in the room. At Clark I wisely said nothing. She is leaving the US to live in Chiapas.

In conclusion, these big AAG meetings are ambiguous. They are inspiring, and opportunities to validate what we get up to the rest of the year. New ideas and projects always spin off from them. Protests – something of a theme –  have obviously continued since the 1971 AAG, since there are still very many targets for them.  …..Now, in 2017, the sense of anger, of  ‘not in my name’, is real. But there was also sad reminders this year that academic professions are changing for the worse, jobs are scarce, and our influence on the political economy of western nations is probably dropping. This may seem like unnecessary moaning  to non-academics, but it might provide geographers at least with enough reason to keep fighting.


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Simplicity Institute video – community in Gippsland

I heard that a former student from the University of Melbourne’s Master of Environment (the program I used to direct) had offered some land on a  family farm for an experiment in low impact living, in about 2014.  I just came across a video of the experiment, featuring a few familiar faces. Nick Lampel was an excellent student on our Masters. Ted Trainer, one of the originators of these ideas long before ‘degrowth’ became popular in Europe,  is someone I took time to visit on my first trip to Australia in 1995, and I wrote about his ideas (with very little impact, it must be said). Sam Alexander at Melbourne has taken up the cause of simplicity and degrowth in Australia, and writes widely as well as making this film and supporting the Gippsland project.

2015 was an odd year for me – very unhappy in my job at the University of Melbourne, I headed out, and worked in Brussels on community bike workshops, and took some long-overdue leave, among other things. I missed all these goings-on in the bush. I don’t know what happened to the residents after 2016.

Plenty to laugh at, but also to enjoy.

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Old posting on Brunel/WLIHE university merger, from late 2000s.

Cannot remember the context, but this old posting was unpublished so I though this was worth putting up:

I have lived through one university merger  – The West London Institute of Education in Osterley/Isleworth, and Brunel University (London, UK).

I taught at the West London Institute of Higher Education, a small higher education institution in West London, starting in 1993. A report of my experiences is here. In the  early 1990s, a rumour of a possible merger between Kingston University and WLIHE never eventuated. I was actually in the lunch queue at Borough Road campus, WLIHE standing behind the Brunel and WLIHE  management when I heard them discussing a merger. This was  in 1994 (one of the people  was Michael Sterling, the VC of Brunel at the time).

At WLIHE we were essentially a teaching-focussed college and part of the London Borough of Hounslow, near Heathrow Airport. Our core business was training teachers, and we taught modular joint degrees and some professional diplomas, but there were some masters and a very few PhD graduates. Some information here. WLIHE had some pretty good professors and research-active people, although not many. There were only a handful of people with British research council and other prestigious grants. Most  research was ranked 1 or 2 in the government assessment, the RAE, in the early 90s (see here, 1 is low, 5 is excellent).  About 70 academics were submitted for assessment, the most being in Allied Health and Geography. Brunel University fared much better as an institution with innovative 4 year ‘sandwich’ degrees, many more students, and a research profile that was medium to excellent in several disciplines.  However WLIHE included some great buildings including a riverside mansion and plenty of Victoriana, while Brunel had its main 1960s concrete campus in far less illustrious Uxbridge, a long walk from the Tube Station.

These factors made it seem for us at WLIHE that a ‘takeover’  by Brunel took place, since Brunel was a much more powerful institution. A small institution was merged with a larger one and later closed. See Brunel’s website, which used to mention the Institute in detail but has subsequently edited this down to scarcely a mention – and the links to the archives don’t work ! ( Brunel wanted the student numbers in some of the options that WLIHE offered, and a few of the research-active staff. Most WLIHE staff were in favour of the merger too, since we would become a ‘proper’ university (during my time on the Borough Road campus, after hours work was impossible – the doors were locked at 7pm).  A few took redundancy or retirement, because they felt they could not perform in the conventional university research/teaching environment. WLIHE became Brunel University College under Prof. Eric Billett for 2 years, then BUC was annulled and the the University became multi-campus.

The transition was relatively smooth. The positive side was the increase in status for the WLIHE staff and students, and increased student numbers for Brunel at a time when this was important for funding.  The negatives really came in under the next VC, Stephen Schwartz (2002-2006). He began the process of vacating and then selling off the two WLIHE campuses and ‘consolidating’ at Uxbridge, and by the mid 2000s both WLIHE sites had been sold. He also restructured the university (an earlier restructure had seen some loss of science/engineering departments at Uxbridge about 1996). My former Department,  Geography and Earth Sciences, which had been transferred from WLIHE, was then axed despite a strong campaign to save it. Most of the individual staff were actually saved by Schwartz’s successor and redeployed in other units –  two or three are still employed there, but a number of lynchpin geographers finally took redundancy in 2015. There are not many former WLIHE staff left on the Uxbridge campus.

There are several general lessons.

  1. In a higher education sector merger, jobs may be protected through an agreement; but afterwards, in the merged institution, previous promises are unlikely to be maintained for all that long, unless there are ironclad agreements. Universities are, or are like, businesses.
  2. Similarly, physical building stock; it can be sold  after consolidation and thus be lucrative for the new institution (not sure if this was a merger motivation for Brunel, but we had suspicions at the time). The former Maria Gray riverside campus, comprising a mansion (Gordon House, renamed Richmond House)and other buildings, was sold for many millions. There is a gated housing estate there as well and at Borough Road, a large housing development.
  3. The lesser partner in a merger can effectively disappear after a number of years, existing only on Wikipedia and Facebook, as in WLIHE’s case. Bulmershe College is another example, in Reading – the campus was later abandoned by Reading University, which took it on in 1989.
  4. Merged institutions need not resemble the amalgamated entities at all; the management may try to create something entirely new.

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