Saturday, 7 December 2013

Occupy Coleraine - Save the SCR!


Having returned to full time education as a mature student in the noughties, I found myself studying as an undergraduate and then as a post graduate student at the University of Ulster at Coleraine. I have many fond memories of my time there since graduating with my MA in 2010. It was a time of learning, achieving and friendship. I made many friends among my fellow students and the teaching staff alike. I value the folk I continue to keep contact with.



Some of my fondest memories of this time are the evenings and nights spent in the Senior Common Room at Coleraine. It was a place to meet, greet, eat and mingle. It felt very much a part of my studying life.

So I was rather disturbed when I discovered earlier this year that the SCR may be 'no more' very soon. I immediately started reading all the updates current students were posting online and it saddened me that future students and staff may not be able to avail of this facility. I made contact earlier today with some of the students currently involved in the attempt to save the SCR. The following is their feedback to me!

'The Senior Common Room has been in existence since 1968 and is a thriving shared venue where students and staff come together for social and academic events in addition to being an important venue for community clubs and societies. It is one of the last cooperatively run staff/student facilities in the UK higher education system and one of the only remaining community outreach centres on a campus which has been increasingly privatised and off limits to the public.

The Senior Common Room (SCR) is run as a self-financing 
not for profit club open to university staff, students, alumni and associates for a nominal fee.  The university receives rent for the space, there is no financial justification for the closure. The commitment of many of the students and staff who volunteered their time and creative energies over the years has ensured this is a thriving business providing employment for five staff members.
During the years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland the SCR has provided a safe haven for open discussion and mutual understanding free from sectarian divisions that existed elsewhere. Currently the following clubs and societies are based at the SCR Coleraine: 

UUC Rugby Football Club

UUC Fencing Club

Coleraine Bridge Club

UUC Chess Club

Triangle Wine Club 

UUC Canoe Club

Environmental Society

UUC Wine Club

Glitch Gaming Club

The Listening Post - New Live Music (promoting original NI music)

UUC Film Society

UUC Photography Society

UUC Poetry Society 


The SCR represents all that a university ought to stand for, collegiality, scholarship, community outreach and, in light of this, the SCR Coleraine 
has recently acquired Learned Society status. 
University senior management propose to evict us on the 16th December and convert this widely used common space into a corporate dining room. Since the sit-in on Monday university senior management now claims they wish to convert the space to teaching suites. This £3.2M DEL funded project has had no consultation with staff or students or any end user apart from the senior management and the external catering provider. UUSU facilities have been tightly constricted to ensure the profit margin of this external caterer.

For many, the closure and eviction of students and staff from the SCR is the 
final straw in a relentless managerial assault on academic and student life – cuts to staff , outsourcing of jobs, loss of support services, an insulting pay offer of 1% (approx. 3% below cost of living) etc. 

To date, we have had considerable and growing support for the protest, at local and national level. Students, staff and members of the wider community have been actively supportive of our protest. On Wednesday esteemed writer and literary critic Professor Terry Eagleton paid a visit and spoke in support of the sit-in. The Vice Chancellor was invited to this however he did not respond, instead ten minutes into Professor Eagleton’s talk three senior officials from the university Physical resources departments interrupted the proceedings stating that they could have the protesters removed by the PSNI.

To date we've had official statements of support from a number of bodies, including QUB Students Union and the National Union of Students, as well as the University College Union and a variety of trade unions.'



STATEMENT OF SUPPORT

DR. BRUCE STEWART, READER OF ENGLISH, UU COLERAINE.


'Folks

I give my unqualified support to the efforts students and staff involved in Occupy at the Senior Common Room in the University of Ulster, which is threatened with replacement by an 'executive dining-room' - with no plans for or reinstatement in any plausible form. I invite you all to do the same using the amazing social media. 

Which part of "Common Room" do they not understand? How can they be so arrogant as to remove the word 'common' from the living tradition of the university and what do they think will be left when they do so? UU is a special case: a university in a field remote from the nearest town of any size. For decades teachers and postgraduates, as well as campus staffers, have met convivially in this spacious chamber with its gobsmacking view of the Bann estuary. 

A membership association exists and self-standing bar licence has been part of the package since the foundation of the University in its original form as the New University of Ulster. Clubs and associations, as well as visiting lecturers and examiners, are all familiar with its hospitable atmosphere. In a part of the world where commonalty is at a premium (to put it mildly), extracting it from the University is a crime against civility. 

What consultation has gone on when 'executive dining' was preferred to university heart-blood in the machinations of the administration. It is apposite to ask, who do they think they are, if they are not part of the commonwealth of learning?

If the Common Room is to be extirpated in favour of executive dining - be it a university banquet hall or a snack bar for suits - it is incumbent on the Administration to articulate the reasons, just as they should have canvassed the alternatives in the first place. 

As matters stand, the Vice-Chancellor of UU occupies a handsome Victorian pile in leafy Mountsandel, unencumbered by the nuisance of a family or the annoying lowing of cattle. Surely that could be used to advantage to entertain all the executives he wants. I doubt that either Prince Salman Bin Sultan nor Li Keqiang would cock a snoot at his marbled hall or his rolling lawns or his view of the heron-friendly Bann. Think Aras an Uachtarain. Private dwelling for the President of Ireland?

Maybe it's time to figure out what a Chief Executive actually IS, and where it differs from a potentate - Asiatic or otherwise. (No talk of salaries and bonuses, please.)

But hark! Under pressure from Occupy and its vigorous publicity campaign, the UU Admin now tells us that the dining-room plan was a misunderstanding - instead it's gonna be a raft of teaching suites. Oh. Do explain: how does that fit in with the Teaching and Learning strategy for the new millennium? And hasn't it occurred to our planners that the Common Room IS the Teaching Suite par excellence? 

I hope the powers that be have the decency to respect the intentions of the students who have rallied round to defend the best traditions of a very special University which, though not pipped very high on the competitive scale with others in the UK, has always garnered top-rank satisfaction rates from students. Not to mention its long-term contribution to peace in Northern Ireland simply by being the kind of place it is. No technocratic institution with profit motives as its sole criteria could possibly make the same impact. 

IF THERE IS NO CONGENIAL SPACE ON CAMPUS WHERE POSTGRADUATES AND STAFF CAN MEET ACROSS FACULTIES WHAT IS LEFT OF THAT ETHOS? 

Even the appearance of Terry Eagleton in support of Occupy failed to summon an envoy from the Administration in answer to a friendly invitation. Instead, Security arrived with mumblings about Health and Security issues relating to guess what? the inaudibility of fire alarms to sleeping persons. Health and security? Hype and subterfuge, more like it. 

There is a wind-break structure on the Coleraine campus known as "Peter's Erection" by the Common Room wits. If the executive-dining plans goes through, I predict the resultant chamber will be known as "Dickie's Diner" for all future time.

Come to the rescue, lovers of academic freedom in the face of the mindless chutzpah of a self-willed bureaucratic clique.'

                                                                                                                                                                   

Since Monday, December 2nd, a number of students are staging a 'sit in' at the SCR. Follow 'Occupy Coleraine' on facebook and show your support for this very worthy cause. Here's to saving the invaluable space that is the Senior Common Room at Coleraine!



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