Jock's Backroom Blog

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

W(h)ither the Common Room?

Posted by Jock Coats on February 27th, 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!