Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Archive for the 'Oxford Brookes Students’ Union' Category

W(h)ither the Common Room?

Posted by Jock Coats on 27th February 2012

Those foolhardy few who have read my blogs since inception or thereabouts will know that I have written in the past complaining about the loss of what one might call “Staff Common Room” facilities at Brookes, with the loss of the Lloyd Common Room and then no plans to provide anything similar – a private space reserved for staff meals, events and R&R – in the New Library and Teaching Building.  At the same time the SU fought and lost a not very wholehearted battle to get a “proper SU” social facility in the new building too.  And at the weekend I wrote lamenting the imminent loss of what is be the last remaining student operated social space on the central campuses, Morals Bar.  We also have, as I mentioned in that article, a “social centre” in the PostGraduate hall which could form the basis of a Brookes “Middle Common Room” but is firstly limited solely to residents of the building and second is clinical and pristine so that it looks good for the occasional conference users.

All these occurrences make me wonder what might be the future, and even if there is a future, of the idea of the “Common Room” as an institution in universities.  Do I have rose tinted spectacles about the benefits, perhaps?  Are they the important parts of a scholastic community that bring people of many disciplines and backgrounds together to meet informally, drop in and out of conversations, see what else is going on in the institution and so on?  Or, perhaps, are they fusty old class based, gender biased, institutions with little purpose in modern academic life?

Is the change in demographic of people coming to university, and more still, staying on and doing post graduate and then teaching or research, a cause of its demise?  Might it even be the other way round, and affect the sort of people who want to come and study, or work here? Or have we nearly become a “factory” without much of a night shift, where everyone is kept so busy during the day that there is no time or energy left for out of office experiences?  Or, maybe, are all the soft benefits the Common Room may have provided now being “delivered” as bits of the institutional commodity people buy with their fees, by ever more centralised and maybe with it bureaucratic means that can better be overseen and controlled by university management?

I was interested to see (not pleased, you will understand, but interested) that one of the comments on Facebook about my post about Morals Bar was that similar things have been happening even at older, more august, institutions such as Bristol University.  So I am genuinely glad that this is not only happening at Brookes, though it is of course Brookes that I care about most.  It is easy to look over our shoulder, “down the hill” and marvel, or moan, at the traditional hierarchy of the Common Rooms and even at the wider staff facility that is the University Club and either loathe it for the stuffed tweed and mortar board history it represents or envy it for the opportunities it puts in peoples’ way.  But has it ever been an important part of life in the likes of Brookes, the newer universities.  If not, ought it to have?  If so, should it or has it already disappeared, and at what cost to the institution and individuals?

I’ll readily admit that I am as about as institutionalised as it can get for someone (just) not yet forty-five (yes, it’s tomorrow!).  My upbringing in a family that was often moving around, sometimes ex-patriate, and then off to boarding school which was my longest “settled” home, ensured that.  So I was pretty familiar with the institutions of Junior House Common Room, Sixth Form Bar and Masters’ Common Room by the time I had left school.  Heck, even on holidays in the ex-pat community, at least in Africa, much of life revolves around the various ex-patriate clubs for social activities.  My earlier attempts to get into Oxford, my dalliance with monastic life, and now as well my time as a warden in halls of residence bear this tendency out.  My ambition, sad as it may seem, is to be carried out of here in a box, having had some time to be a decent academic, generating and promulgating new knowledge.

But what ought a good “Common Room” be providing?  Well the way I like to think of it is that if the university were a state, let’s say, management would be the government and its bureaucracy, unions, including the students’ union, would be the lobbyists and representatives and the committees its consultative body, whilst “The Common Room” would be its “civil society”.

As a physical facility it is a hub of life outside the classroom or study bedroom or academic office where people from across an institution can mix and meet (at a leisurely pace, not merely in the refectory queues), but still with a tie to the academy – unlike, say, the commonly heard assertion nowadays that a city’s commercial nightlife can cater for all of this.  For instance many times I’ve been in one or other of the former bars with, say, seminar groups with their tutors celebrating the last crit of the year or whatever over a few pints.  A place where the thousand flowers of informal networking, spontaneous debate and so on can bloom and give rise to new societies, opportunities or strands of academic study.  Somewhere where someone who wants an “immersive” experience for their money (which, if you choose to live on the university estate will next year tot up to the best part of £15,000 for a forty week year) can drop in, find out what’s going on, join in things they would never even consider if they had to look for them themselves.

As an institution it can provide camaraderie, the opportunity to get others involved in a new scheme or social activity, a network that reaches beyond the classroom, hall, rugger pitch and research group.  And it can give mutual aid and comfort when the university feels as if it is whirling about around you leaving you lost in the melee of change and development.  An institution separated from, hopefully above, the day to day “office politics” and deadlines of the university.

Have the newer universities ever had this “civil society”?  Clearly our ancient institutions, initially often monastic, but later not terribly approving of married dons, let alone women members, had jolly good reasons for forming such groups.  But I certainly think that when I came here just sixteen years ago those same institutions were alive and at least functioning, if perhaps already in decline.  Even before I started working here, friends who were studying here would invite me up to a few drinks after the  end of their exams and seminar assessments, so I’d get to meet tutors and lecturers and find out lots about what they were doing and what the university was like.  We used to have great big society events in Morals bar where resident students would mix with, for instance, international students societies and the like.  And I cannot count the number of interesting people I have been introduced to over lunch in Lloyd Common Room sharing those big tables.

It was always more egalitarian than the Common Rooms of the older universities perhaps.  Lacking an SCR cellar, staff, academic and administrative, would mingle with students in their bars, if anything trebling the possibility for chance networking opportunities.  Societies who held events either in the bars or in areas adjacent to them benefitted from passing footfall piquing the interest of someone on a chance encounter – something that will be all but impossible once Morals Bar has gone.

Do we still need this sort of facility?  Well of course I’m going to say yes.  The old reasons, of a student safe social space and so on, still apply.  I simply cannot believe that city night life is either appropriate or sufficient for all of our students, in fact, as a hall warden I positively know that’s not the case.  Even as the university itself aspires to be more “24/7” I cannot imagine that coming out of a society guest lecture at 8pm in a lecture hall on Gipsy Lane is going to be any less windswept and isolated in the new building as it is in the current facilities.  If we have any ambition to be a “scholastic community” and not just a 9-5 college with facilities for late studying then these sort of facilities are just as necessary as shorter queues at campus food outlets during the day or sufficient bus services to get people to Wheatley or Harcourt on time.

In the meantime, well I will be dining at St Cross College for my birthday, because, hey, there’s nowhere here to invite my friends to!

Posted in Brookes, Oxford Brookes Students' Union, Student Experience | Comments Off on W(h)ither the Common Room?

So farewell then, Morals Bar

Posted by Jock Coats on 26th February 2012

At the beginning of this semester, about a month ago now, the Students’ Union invited us to “celebrate” twenty years’ service to the community of, first, Morrell Hall, and latterly Clive Booth Student Village, by Morals Bar by announcing it was to close permanently at the end of this semester. I decided at the time not to write an outraged post or try to form a campaign myself to persuade them otherwise because I was heartened that within a few days of that announcement a group of students resident in one of the old Morrell Hall blocks had been to the union’s management and had been told that if they got a campaign together there was a chance that it could be saved.

Well, now that SU elections are underway, a further email from the union management in recent days seems to make clear that this has never been a possibility. It simply repeats the news that the bar has about eight weeks left to live with no apparent chance of either reprieve nor discussion about what might happen in there in the future. So I am now ready to be outspokenly outraged about this news. All the more so as it appears that our students were either misinformed or misunderstood that their efforts might achieve some change.

I have been here, and regularly visiting Morals bar, for nearly sixteen years now. The SU probably would not have even realised the place was twenty years old this year had I not mentioned it would be nice to do something to mark it: I didn’t mean to terminate it.  There have been times when I have wondered whether it might save the university money, and me tax, just to transfer a portion of my wages direct to the students union block grant and give me a tab there! I have seen much more than a bunch of bean counters possibly can know about how it has worked, and why it hasn’t. And as I sit here of an evening enjoying a Coke with my evening meal, I hear more about what what other students appear to want from their conversations at tables next to me than any management or representative committee can guess from focus group meetings or surveys.

Morals Bar c. 1995

First, a timeline, because frankly I don’t suppose many in the union, or even the university, know much about the history of the place. When I arrived here Morals Bar had been the Student Union’s largest entertainment/club night venue since it had opened in 1992. On Gipsy Lane, they had had what is now the Galliano/Galaxy Lounge as a club area and other parts of the ground floor of the Sinclair building for its bars. The Gipsy Lane venue had its main late license night on a Saturday and so Morals had a very successful night on the Friday night (which was seen as the more lucrative club night anyway).

The year I arrived, Brookes had taken control of the Headington Hill Hall site and the Pergamon Press print works building, which enabled the Student Union to have a venue of over a thousand in capacity, and with it they applied for and got the lucrative Friday night late license. So Morals main night reverted to the Saturday, in the guise of a hugely successful branded night called “Glam”.

Glam was successful for many years. Every Saturday at half past seven the Entz team would have to kick out half the capacity of the bar in order to count them back in and by the official Glam start time of eight in the evening there wold regularly be a queue that left us immediately one-in-one-out and continued that way right through till last entry at one on the Sunday morning. Throughout this successful period it must be remembered that the hall on which Morals was sited had only 450 residents, compared with today’s nearly 1700.

Not only was Glam on a Saturday extremely successful but a student DJ organised Friday night called Feedback, playing Indie music for those not so keen on the contemporary dance night up at the new Helena Kennedy Center thousand plus capacity venue, was also a very successful evening, with Morals often well over half full (and indeed when the HKSC venue was full many came down to Feedback anyway as an alternative, whatever their taste in music).  At the same time the then new Vice Chancellor, who lived for a short while in the “Steel Framed House” just opposite Morals bar, lent his support to an application for further 2am licences (at the time much to my chagrin indeed as I felt the level of noise we experienced from a full club on a Friday and Saturday would be inappropriate on a student residence site in midweek). When I questioned Graham about this, he stated that we should do everything we could to ensure the commercial success of the union to bolster the block grant.

However, the capricious decision to axe two popular nights – Playground (for which most weeks people queued round the block on a Monday morning to ensure tickets for the following Friday) at the main venue and Glam at Morals and replace them with Peachy and Blitz was puzzling at the time, but for both venues it was, in effect, the beginning of the end.  Numbers attending the main venue declined precipitously and Blitz was never as successful as Glam from the beginning.  In reaction the union decided it was the fault of the fabric of the main venue and spent a lot of capital trying to glitz it up.  But it was the underlying decision to rebrand the main nights that was at fault and no amount of capital expenditure was going to undo that loss of goodwill.  Auditors rightly recognised this after the event and said the expenditure would have to be written off as trade was not sufficient to depreciate it normally, and the decision to end all bar trading was effectively made.  Morals has, if anything, simply had a couple of years of stay of execution, with no attempt to promote it, or return to Glam or even any discussion about how the space might be used differently.  Simply abandoned.

So yes, the licensed trade can be vicious: club nights are fickle and represent a risk, especially if you have people, elected for a short period, who think they know better than the status quo that is successful and exists, and who go on to throw good money after bad decisions.  That is what is unsustainable.  And so it has proven.  But that has fitted in quite nicely with the now prevailing view amongst university management.  Club nights were a reputational risk to the university.  Much local dissatisfaction with the university as a neighbour was focussed on the club nights and much university time and effort put in to try and address the local aftermath of these rather than perhaps more directly relevant university issues.  The bars had to go.

However we now have the strange situation in which the university feels it is worth providing a social space in the new Postgraduate centre (cynics might suggest it’s really only for the summer conference trade rather than truly a space for the “middle common room” to make its own and that is certainly reflected in the management of the place as a pristine and therefore not very welcoming environment), but is closing down the previously successful venue at the heart of what is now a hall of 1700 residents, and neither university nor Student Union management appear to want to talk about what, if anything, should go there in the future.  All the previous arguments about why a university should provide some social facilities onsite swept away: about having safe spaces in which young undergraduates can socialise (not the same thing as social learning spaces) without having to go too far, arrange an entire night out, book specially spaces that require people to kick us out of otherwise grim, empty, evening spaces in the university at a certain time.

And here’s the rub: it is all very well saying that Oxford’s night life offers everything a student could want, but it is qualitatively different.  They separate the social from the university.  It forces people to decide to make an effort to “go out”, rather than be able to pop in for a couple of drinks in the middle of coursework (some even like to do their work sometimes in the bar so they have a change of scene, and a chance to see people passing through rather than be isolated in the study-bedroom.  They force societies to book spaces where no other footfall might attract passing interest: the union may tout the use of the “Lounge” and “Venue” for society events, but they are, frankly, a little like organising a night in an otherwise empty community centre.

To have a “scholastic community” is more than to have a day time, pristine, sterile set of multi-purpose teaching and learning buildings.  Where is the “common room”?  The university has all but done away with the staff common room too of course in which people from different disciplines mix, quite casually, but network, overhear what’s going on in other parts of the university and so on.  I wonder how many academic collaborations have been sparked by casual networking and conversation in the common room or bar?  I doubt it’s a coincidence that college high table, hall and common room chats afterwards are still an important part of life “down the hill”.  Well, some careful thought into what could replace Morals in what was, after all, a purpose built communal facility building (even though designed so that it could be converted into lecture rooms), could show the way.

I take it as a given, though reluctantly as I don’t really believe the stated “competition” reasons, that there is no longer a possibility of filling the 550 capacity venue as a bar alone, trading at a profit.  Part of its problem indeed has been that because it was first and foremost a bar, it has only opened at “drinking times”.  It has never been available, properly, for day time social use.  If the building itself were seen genuinely as the heart of the hall, a place where people could take some work during the day, maybe get a coffee or some food (even out of one of those modern vending machines if necessary, though 1700 residents out to be sufficient to justify a proper, staffed, catering offer along the lines of Eights at Wheatley) and perhaps have a bar opened during the evening for a while in addition, I’ll bet it would get better use, not be taken for granted as simply a single function bar and place to watch the rugby on February weekends.

The space indeed could be divided up, with a smaller area as a bar room, that could be fully secured to allow for more casual day time, in fact 24/7, use of the rest of the spaces, and still have a place to go in the evenings and at weekends without having to arrange a whole night out.  Where societies can have events without worrying about being thrown out at a particular time, and where casual passers’ by might see something going on and look in, maybe changing their lives completely in the process by introducing them to something they’re never even going to look for on a societies notice board or Facebook page.  The ease with which a new group can spring up amongst undergraduates at Oxford must surely partly be down to the ease with which they can simply grab a space in a college and meet up and have a couple of drinks after a guest speaker to continue the conversation.  Organising to hold student arts events in local pubs and clubs is not the same as having a safe space to mess around with in the relative privacy of a university venue.  Not everyone is ready for the big stage, or even the “Backroom at the Bully”, or can compete with more professional offerings in such competitive venues.  It increases the difficulty of arranging such an event, possibly to the point where it simply won’t happen.

One person.  Only one, talks about discussing the future of Morals in their Student Union election manifesto.  A few more seem to want a venue or even return to some form of a union as nightclub.  But for the union to have known about the impending doom of Morals bar for over two years now and not to have taken steps to involve its members in a discussion of what future it might have after its life as a large but increasingly empty club venue is disappointing to say the least.  A university is about more than nice classrooms and nights out in town.  If it is to be a 24/7 scholastic community some consideration needs to go into spaces other than on the main campus where that can happen.  Every hall should have a social/social learning space for when study bedrooms become oppressive or people just want to get out of the flat for a while without organising a night out.  The added value of making casual connections and networking outside of classroom hours is a core part of what a “scholastic community” ought to be encouraging.

The demise of Morals seems to suggest it is not even on the agenda.  And if one takes the view that our future students may well be paying for their experience for half the rest of their lives, for as long as they are paying for their home, it ought to be on the agenda.  We can’t just subcontract everything outside teaching and learning to the Cowley Rd.

Posted in Brookes, Halls of Residence, Morals Bar, Oxford Brookes Students' Union, Student Experience | Comments Off on So farewell then, Morals Bar