With the new Students’ Union building set to be built and ready for use by July 2013, plans are currently under way to ensure that this new Frenchay-based build suits the demands and needs of current and prospective UWE students. July 2013 seems to me, like only a stone’s throw away, and the prospect of constructing a completely brand new building in such a short space of time could appear maybe a little bit… unrealistic? However, UWESU President Colin Offler assures us that: “Although projected dates are tight and will be tight throughout I’m confident that we can meet the challenge.”

Over the average three year period we spend at university, approximately between £140 to £190 of our fees goes towards the Students’ Union. However, the question must be asked, how many us even know where the Students’ Union is, and more importantly, what the Students’ Union actually does. Students’ Unions are meant to be the ‘heart of the university’, yet in its current location it just appears a bit… lost. UWESU is here to represent and support us, yet many of us are unaware of its whereabouts and purpose. Do we not know about its whereabouts because it is so embedded within the University itself? Do we not know what its purpose is because of maybe a lack in communication? For many students, the SU is synonymous with cheap drinks at Escape Bar and overly priced sandwiches in the SU Shop, but this is not what the Students’ Union should be renowned for. Their purpose is to represent the student body and to ‘champion a strong student voice at UWE with a vision to initiate change and enhance student experience’. UWESU are also responsible in providing vital facilities that are to support and advise us during our time at UWE. The current Students’ Union facilities that are operating in F block have been doing so for over the last 20 years. F block is thought to have changed very little since its conception in the 1970s, and has now been regarded as an ‘outdated’ building, which is ‘unfit for purpose’. Therefore, UWESU have recognised and identified in its plans that they have 30,000 members to support, whose ‘mounting expectations increase the demand for a more effective and responsive provision’.

Although a students’ union should not be defined by its physical stature, producing a building that is separate from the academic institute itself gives it a sense of independence. The independence it should so rightfully have and maintain. In its current location there is an obvious lack of division between departments, especially between the University and the SU. This often results in a lot of confusion for us students about where certain services are located, and who they are in fact ran by. Students shouldn’t necessarily have to go searching for these services; services should be highly visible for passing students. Having a separate building to the University is thought will make it easily identifiable as UWESU space, and therefore a space that students can utilise and enjoy without feeling they are being suffocated by the educational institute itself.

The current layout of Frenchay’s Students’ Union consists of four floors, with each floor resembling something of a dull, grey office environment – not very enticing for students to say the least. Even Colin Offler has described it as a ‘concrete jungle.’ It is proposed that the new building will be spread over two levels and have a Students’ Union reception and service space that will look more inviting and appealing to students. In the research conducted last year, a recommendation was given that it should be ‘a space where they feel they can stay and spend time in, an area that is acknowledged as being for them.’ We are the Students’ Union after all and having a space that we feel is our own, is what I believe vitally important. 

Front view of the SU building

 

One exciting feature of the new Students’ Union building is that the WesternEye office will be more visible to students. Currently being positioned on the fifth floor of the SU block has most certainly done us no favours when it comes to engaging and encouraging more students to become involved in thenewspaper.

The objective behind the development is to bring together all these services that the Students’ Union has to offer such as representation, advice, volunteering, clubs, societies, networks, Job Shop and Student Lettings. In addition there will also be the UWESU shop, a bar and a ‘Venue’, and social spaces for students to utilise, whether this be to study or socialise. Conforming to the University’s sustainable ethos, the building will also have natural heating, limited mechanical ventilation and plenty of windows to supply natural lighting.

UWE Students’ Union are prompting students to submit ideas and suggestions for the building, which can be done so through the UWESU website (www.uwesu.org/lets-build). Over the next few months students will be able to put forward any proposals they feel are necessary for the new building, whereby other students are able to vote on which ideas appeal to them. Phase one of the building consultation has already passed, whereby decisions have been made as to how the new building will be structured and its general layout. Whilst the new Union ‘Venue’ will be multi-purpose, ideas such as a fully equipped cinema, a purpose built nightclub and a swimming pool have already been disregarded by the University’s Board of Governors. However, it will be a space for activities such as live gigs, screenings, art exhibitions and performances, and is estimated to house around 500 people a time. 

Floor plan of the new SU building

 

The build, which is going to be based on Frenchay Campus, will be located at the ‘heart of the new super campus’, near to the farmhouse and Hewlett Packard refectory (behind the library). The University has conditionally agreed to spend £4.5 million (£8.8m including taxes, fees and infrastructure) on the new Students’ Union build itself, with £600,000 being spent on kitting out the building. Surrounding the building will be a new sustainable transport hub, whereby newly constructed bus routes (see page ? of News) will be linked to, in order for students to arrive at the heart of the campus, instead of the current bus depot at the front of UWE. However, there has been no indication as to when the transport hub will be built, but Project Co-ordinator, Alex Bright, is hoping that it will be constructed around the same time as the SU building.

The construction, estimated to be around 3000 square meters – 64% bigger than the space at Frenchay’s SU – in size has been appointed architects by the name of Hawkins Brown, a company that has worked on a variety of universities across the country.

The planning application for the new building was submitted on Friday 27 April, which will take roughly around six weeks for the request to process. If all goes according to plan, building works will commence at some point in August this year.

Many universities around the country have recently invested in a new students’ union building, such as Bath, Coventry and Sheffield Hallam. Other regional universities such as Portsmouth, Plymouth and Brighton have significantly better facilities than UWESU, so it can be argued that improving the facilities of our own Students’ Union will increase competition amongst other universities nationally. According to a source, ‘investing in new facilities of the Students’ Union is an important step for the University in reaching the top 50 universities in the UK.’ With the rise in tuition fees, universities nationwide are having to compete to attract students, and with a vastly improved students’ union building, it will make UWE seem that little bit more attractive. I am not doubting that the new building will be aesthetically pleasing, and will most certainly attract more students, but I believe it’s how the new building will improve student involvement and access to its facilities that is the most important aspect of the new SU build.

Whilst we all know the new UWE expansion is pretty much inevitable now, and many of us may not still be around at UWE to see the final outcome of the new ‘super campus’, the new Students’ Union building will be – plans permitting – up and running by September next year and at least a third of us will still be here to utilise it.

 For further information about the new SU building project see www.uwesu.org/lets-build and join the Facebook page for latest updates www.facebook.com/newUWESUbuilding

UWESU building as a part of the new ‘super campus’…

In an online survey conducted in 2009, which received 1005 responses, it was revealed that 70 percent of students showed support towards an extended campus, whereas almost 20 percent thought it was a negative step and 10 percent being unsure at the time. The round of consultation was seen as an opportunity for students to become involved in UWE’s future developments. One question proposed in the survey required students to rate a list of aspects in order of importance – ten being the most important and one being the least. One of the aspects mentioned was: ‘A new Students’ Union building including new bars, clubs and social spaces.’ Despite a third of the respondents placing the new build in their top three priorities, the feedback to this aspect resulted in a rating of almost six, and was ranked five out of the ten possible improvements that would be incorporated in the campus expansion. Other aspects such as improved learning spaces and environmentally friendly buildings acquired a higher average score.

The location of the new building (behind the library)

It is assumed by UWESU that the findings from the survey indicate that the students who disregarded the extension were those studying outside of Frenchay campus. Unsurprisingly, there are many students who are against the general expansion of UWE, which will eventually envelope the new SU building, especially those who are studying at St Matthias, Glenside and Bower Ashton. Many students feel that Frenchay is already too big and impersonal, and ultimately possesses no sense of community. They believe that by closing down these campuses, UWE will be losing an important and very valuable part of the University, and their campus was one of the main things that attracted them to studying at UWE.

Second year student, Tianna Cowan stated: “I wanted to come to UWE because of St Matt’s. I think it’s a lovely place to study and has such a relaxed environment. Frenchay is just a bit too commercial for me.”

Further student feedback has described Frenchay campus as being ‘grey and uninspiring’ and have expressed a fear in that the ‘inspiring atmosphere’ so evident at the other UWE campuses will be lost in the process of the move.

However, some students have welcomed the expansion, stating: “I think centralising the university campuses will enhance the university atmosphere, be more inclusive and equally distribute the facilities between the different faculties.”

There is, without doubt, a great sense of community at St Matthias, Glenside and Bower Ashton. Each campus provides an atmosphere that is suited to their subject and it is questionable that when these campuses eventually move up to Frenchay, whether the new ‘super campus’ and the new Students’ Union building for that matter, will be able to provide the same blissful environment as what these other campuses do so well in supplying.  

Rebecca Day