UCL News


Vice-Provost's View: Making the most of our teaching space

16 February 2016

It's a given that the task of timetabling is highly complex in an organisation of our size, but this year the scale of the challenge has been greater than ever.

Professor Anthony Smith Vice-Provost

Our rapid growth in student numbers and the current shortage of shared bookable space have had a significant impact on the whole UCL community.

Transforming UCL - our much-needed programme to upgrade the estate - has meant that building and refurbishment works have further depleted our stock of teaching space in the short term.

We've tried to mitigate this by renting teaching space from Birkbeck and other institutions, but the lack of suitable audio visual and IT equipment in some rooms has been immensely frustrating.

It's the task of several offices across UCL to improve timetabling and room bookings. Together our aim is to have brought about a step-change in performance in this area by 2018-19.

By then we would like to have put in place a reliable and timely way of forecasting and planning for the space we need. We hope this means students will be registering for their modules earlier than they currently do and that we will be moving towards producing a single timetable of all teaching on campus for students and staff.

Short-term measures to improve timetabling

Meanwhile, over the next few months, UCL Estates and Student and Registry Services will be working together on short- and medium-term measures to address our historic timetabling problems.

These measures have been approved by the Provost and the Senior Management Team who recognise that resolving these challenges is a high priority. I would like to go into some detail of what some of them are.

I wrote about one of them in last week's edition of The Week@UCL. It involves UCL Estates and Student and Registry Services working with departments and faculties between now and May to agree an upper ceiling for the number of students on each undergraduate and postgraduate taught module to run from this September.

We do not want to restrict ambition or interfere with how departments manage their teaching, but the academic timetable cannot continue to be formed on the basis of projected, rather than actual, numbers of students on each module.

UCL Estates (Room Bookings) and Student and Registry Services are starting to work with departments to understand how programme diets and the pattern of student registrations interact - and this is crucial. At the moment, by the time the final number of students on each module is fixed, it is several weeks into term and there is often a significant disparity between projections and actual numbers. This can lead to overcrowding and late room changes.

Another important change is that all teaching space - whether centrally bookable or departmentally-owned - will be recorded and made visible on CMIS, our timetabling software, by the end of next month.  In addition, we are reviewing all central teaching space to ensure that all details of each room, including the audio visual facilities, the provision of white boards, the meterage and the capacity, are accurate.

To help us plan for the future, we are in the process of commissioning a tool that will model changes in student numbers and spatial requirements against the teaching space we have available, taking into account space taken out of use due to refurbishment.

Looking further ahead

There are no quick fixes and so we are also considering long-term ways in which the timetabling process at UCL can be improved.  This includes running a pilot to look at the pros and cons of automated timetabling software, and considering how we can get the most out of the software which we currently use to build the timetable.

A new Timetabling and Room Bookings Policy will be rolled out in time for the construction of the 2016-17 timetable. The aim of the policy is to give clear guidance on key aspects of timetabling to encourage best practice across the university.

As I have mentioned, we would like students, particularly returning ones, to register for their modules considerably earlier than they currently do to allow more time to prepare the timetable and deal with fluctuations. We are considering how we can move the deadline forward for students to register on modules for 2017-18 and will be working with you to get this right over the next few months.

We've already provided extra teaching space in the South Quad and other additional space is taking shape in the Cruciform and the Anatomy student hub, for example. In the long-term, we are exploring opportunities to create new teaching spaces, in particular rooms with large flat floors.

It's also vitally important that the rooms we teach in are fit-for-purpose. In addition to the teaching room refresh programme undertaken by Estates each summer - which is being ramped up - , we are looking into whether we should be buying different furniture as some of the tables and chairs that we currently have are not conducive to the flexible modes of teaching delivery that you want. We would very much like your thoughts on this and will be inviting you to an event in April where you can test out possible replacement furniture for our lecture theatres and seminar rooms and give us your feedback. We will also be spending £1m each year for the next five years on audio visual equipment and wifi in teaching spaces.

All of these changes - short, medium and long-term - will need your help. I know that some of them will mean more work for you, especially if you work in teaching administration, but it is not an option for us to leave things as they are.

The challenges we face in 2016-17 are at least as acute - if not more so - than those we have experienced this year. If we invest time now and enable more accurate rooming, it will reduce the effort we will need in the run-up to - and after - the start of term.

Over the next few months, we have planned a comprehensive programme of meetings between staff in my team, UCL Estates and Student and Registry Services with departments to explain why we need to do things differently and to hear from you about how things could be improved. I hope you will take part and make improving the quality of our teaching space and rooming the timetable a shared endeavour to benefit our students.

Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs)