Is Campus Redevelopment really in the best interest of the students?

Credit: Rhiannon Doherty

Liam King

Liam King explores where the University’s motives lie regarding campus redevelopment

The Learning and Teaching Hub is the first building in the University’s £1bn Campus Development programme. Unless you have been away from campus recently, you will almost certainly have noticed the building site adjacent to the Boyd Orr. At £90.8m, it will be a behemoth of a building. Standing at roughly two-thirds the height of the Boyd Orr and filling all the space between University Avenue and University Gardens, it will have a floor area of nearly two and a half football pitches. No question, it will be a building fit for 21st century teaching, and solve many of the current overcrowding issues – an undersupply of study space in the library, sitting on the floor in lecture theatres, and lectures in the Hilton Hotel. But for many it will be hard to shake the feeling that, had the University not over recruited students in the first place, it wouldn’t need to spend tens of millions to accommodate them.

Indifference – even cynicism – was certainly what many students felt when the plan for the Hub was first announced. Who could blame them? Few, if any, students at the time would actually be around to see it open. If you’re spending around £27,000 on tuition and not getting a seat in the library, why should you care about a building that will double study spaces years after you’ve graduated? Understandably, a sizeable number of students felt – and continue to feel – resentful: their trebled tuition fees will pay for infrastructure that they will never feel the benefit of. Two years on, it’s not clear that sentiments have changed, even though the Hub is due to open in 18 months time.

There are two possible explanations for why indifference endures. Firstly, students simply cannot grasp the size, scale, and impact of the campus development, rendering it something distant and “other”. The numbers involved in the development are staggeringly huge: £1bn for the whole campus development, £175m in loans, £90.8m for the Learning and Teaching Hub, £102.9m for the Research Hub. When you are student working a minimum wage bar job, paying £6,750 a year for tuition, and living off a £4,750 SAAS subsistence loan, what do these numbers mean to you? It is difficult to imagine how that money translates into physical infrastructure. What does £1bn buy that will make a tangible difference to the undergraduate experience?

Trying to make sense of these numbers in comparison to other University investments only confuses things further. Take, for example, the £200,000 in additional funding for Counselling and Psychological Services (Caps) that was recently announced. This amounts to around 0.25% of the Learning and Teaching Hub budget. More money will be spent on the chairs, tables, and computers in the Hub than on the cash bonus for Caps. What are students to make of this? That the Hub is gargantuanly overpriced and makes the increase in Caps funding look like loose change found down the back of the Senior Management sofa?

The University would probably think this comparison unfair – it would say that this is an attempt to compare apples and pears. The Hub is a building which will stand for decades, and have space for thousands of students to study and socialise simultaneously. In fact, when we asked them what measures will be put in place to ensure they don’t over-accept students again, they avoided the question and said almost exactly that: “the student experience for all our students is a key priority for the University and any expansion in numbers will be carefully monitored to ensure that this is not affected negatively in any way; on the contrary, we believe that the delivery of a number of new buildings, including a state-of-the-art Learning and Teaching Hub, will enhance the student experience for all.” The extra Caps investment, however, is an investment in highly trained staff for this year and the years to come, and brings the Caps budget to nearly £1m.

While all of this may be true – constructing buildings is hugely expensive and strictly speaking cannot be directly compared to the University’s “regular” expenditure – this is the exact comparison the University wants to draw when extolling the virtues of the Hub. Rather than telling students what is being built, we are told how much is being built, in a management jargon that just doesn’t resonate with the average student. The Hub will have self-service kitchens with microwaves for your own food, wifi that works, indoor bike racks, and showers – all in a brand new building three quarters the size of the library. No wonder students don’t care about something they haven’t been told about.

The second possible explanation for this continued indifference and cynicism is that students have no faith in the University to deliver on their promises. When it was revealed at the beginning of this academic year that over a thousand extra students had been recruited “by accident” it was shocking and farcical. But it also wasn’t the first time. In 2013 over recruitment of students led to severe pressure on student services, and teaching space. It was so bad that students were staying in hotels because all the University accommodation was full. What were originally acute symptoms have developed into chronic pain: teaching in the Bute Hall, Hunter Halls, QMU and GUU has stuck around, the exam timetable remains a mess, waiting times for student services are still inadequate, there are still queues out the library door in week one. The SRC censured Senior Management then as they did this year. They were told it wouldn’t happen again and investment would be forthcoming. But it is all a bit déjà vu.

The way the Campus Development is described today is eerily familiar to another “transformative” and “groundbreaking” project: MyCampus. Costing around £15m and due to save £500,000 a year, MyCampus was rolled out in 2011 in what become nothing short of a disaster. It was to replace an aging system built on early 2000s technology which looked ugly, and didn’t work on tablets or phones. It turned out to be exactly what we still have seven years later: a system built on early 2000s technology which looks ugly, is unintelligible, and doesn’t work on tablets or phones. Given it has taken so long to deliver the MyCampus that was promised a lack of trust in the University’s ability to deliver big projects is not completely unwarranted.

Now that the students who will be able to use the Hub are here, the University needs to take this chronic overcrowding and under-delivering – intentional or not – much more seriously. Management have been able to explain away these problems so far by invoking the millions being spent for tomorrow. But if it persists students, and staff, will wonder if all this short term damage to the student experience has really been worth it.