Chris's Tumblelog

The Tumblelog of Chris Ruff, Activities Officer at the University of Bristol Students Union.

The Campaign Against the Union Name Change - “No to QRB”

The Background

As you probably will have gathered, Bristol Students’ Union is currently a building site.

Built in 1965, this building was the biggest of its kind in the UK, and was one of the main selling points for students thinking of coming to Bristol University.

However, those of you that have been to this building will see that nothing much has changed, and the facilities are lagging way behind what 21st century students expect from their Union. Frankly, the building is a concrete eyesore in an otherwise very attractive area.

Thankfully, around 3 years ago the University agreed to invest around £26m in the building. In around 2/3 years time, this building will have been given a much-needed facelift and will hopefully be a vibrant hub of student activity once again.

Here are some of the early architects plans:

Looks great, right? Well, it’s definitely an improvement. Although the exterior of the building isn’t changing in any radical sense, the interior faces a major overhaul - changes which 83% of society leaders have responded to positively. More details can be found at www.ubu.org.uk/build.

However, if you look a little bit closer at the above picture, you will notice three words which feature prominently on the exterior signage; as part of the University’s plans for this building, it plans to rename the building the “Queens Road Building” aka the “QRB”.

What are the University thinking?

The idea from the University’s point of view is that because more UoB departments are moving into the building, the name should reflect that. More precisely, the building will now house the new International Foundation Programme, or IFP (what is the obsession with three-letter acronyms?), as well as other UoB office space. There is also the strong possibility that certain academic departments will be house on the top two floors of the South building.

Their argument seems to be that the new occupants will not want to operate in a building called the ‘Students’ Union building’, although whether this is true is disputable. Please read on.

What is good about the proposals?

This building desperately needs a facelift, and certainly the £26m investment is very welcome. In the project, there are plans to completely revamp the Anson Rooms to make it a great gig venue once again, as well as building a brand new Cafe/Bar, a radio studio, two dark rooms, properly sound-insulated music practice rooms, a dance studio, as well as many other modern, flexible spaces that clubs and societies can use.

It must also be said that, in the new building, although the amount of square metres available for society use will be slightly reduced overall, the efficiency of the space will be greatly enhanced. That means no more strange rooms that stretch round a corner, or randomly-placed pillars that render a space unusable. The architects have also taken great care to find out exactly which spaces were needed based on an exhaustive study of last year’s room bookings.

In a poll of society leaders at the start of the year, over 80% said they were happy with the architect’s initial plans for the activity spaces.

What aren’t students happy about?

At an earlier Corporate Board (the main University meeting where decisions are made about the budget and planning of the refurbishment), I had raised the possibility that students would not be happy with the building being called the QRB. Those present agreed that perhaps this was not the best name, and that students could help suggest one that was more appropriate, but that calling it the Students’ Union building was not an option.

When students were consulted at the Student Council of the 5th December (one of the best attended in years with 120+ attendees), they were almost unanimously against the idea that this building should be called anything other than the Students’ Union building. It was therefore decided that this would be the stance of the Students’ Union in any discussions with the University.

Why?

  • Loss of identity

Fundamentally, the renaming of this building is a small but hugely symbolic change. For over 40 years Bristol students have been able to call this building their own, and it is well-known as a place they can get away from their academic studies, access the support they need, and engage in the activities they love doing.

If this building were given a different name, then it becomes just like any other - ‘The Queens Building’, ‘The Victoria Rooms’, ‘Senate House’ etc.

If any of the Corporate Board had ever been here on a weekday evening between 5pm and 11pm, they would know that this building is not like any other at the University! Where else can you have people abseiling down the central staircase? Whilst there is absolutely no problem with other University departments using the building during the day, the name needs to reflect the primary user of this building and the importance of those activities that happen here.

In addition, students feel comfortable about coming to the Students’ Union building and expressing themselves, knowing they can come and make mistakes in a safe and welcoming atmosphere - a name change gives the impression that this place’s primary purpose is no longer to serve the needs of students.

In the words of one student:

"Changing the name to the QRB will of course make no difference whatsoever to the people who work in and use the building. Students will continue to refer to it as the Union, because buildings for society and extracurricular activities at any university are called Students’ Unions. The only noticeable difference will be when freshers are given their maps of Bristol and wonder why on earth this large university doesn’t appear to have a Union building. It will of course be explained to them that some nameless, faceless people at the top of the hierarchy have for some bizarre reason decided to change the letters on the Students’ Union to read Queens Road Building, but in actual fact it is still the place where you find the art studios, theatres, meeting rooms … The change would serve no purpose except to make students feel further alienated from the people who run the University, and cause mild embarrassment when prospective students ask why the University doesn’t have a Union building."

  • Do the other stakeholders really care?

The International Office, Accommodation Office and the Access Unit have lived happily in this building for a long time. I am currently investigating as to whether they believe that by being located in a building called the ‘Students’ Union’ they feel that they have been adversely affected. In my opinion it is unlikely that this is the case.

In contrast, the Students’ Union has a lot more to lose from being in a building called the QRB. For example, as a gig venue, the Anson Rooms at Bristol Students’ Union is well-known to local promoters. In addition, a building called the QRB is very clearly marked as a University building, and it appears that any interior design of the foyer would need to reflect that. From the (admittedly early) architects plans, the central ‘link’ area seems to have a very “bland, corporate feel” that is incongruous with the diversity and colourful nature of the activities that happen within the building.

  • Future considerations

To many this campaign might seem frivolous, especially if you are not a regular user of this space. However, it is important to note the important future consequences of such a move.

As discussed earlier, by changing the name, the University are making a statement about the usage of this building:

By calling it the ‘Students’ Union building’, they would be saying that they value the non-academic side of student life, and acknowledge how important it is to the overall student experience. They would also be saying that the services the Union provide are vital to the successful running of Bristol University.

With student numbers increasing by 20% next year, and students facing £9,000 fees and uncertainty at every corner, it’s more important than ever that the Students’ Union has a strong voice and is valued by its institution.

Finally, in response to this increase in student numbers, it might well be that the Students’ Union wants to negotiate some of the space back in this building (as many of you will attest, it was crammed even before the refurbishment!). Clearly, if in the future this building is called the Students’ Union building any arguments for more space will have more weight than if it is called something else.

All these reasons and more are why the Students’ Union are standing up against the proposed name-change of this building.

What next?

Share the story, tell your friends!

Join the campaign on Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/pages/Keep-the-Students-Union-the-Students-Union-No-to-QRB/257831420944108

Read the Epigram article about it here - http://www.epigram.org.uk/2011/12/students-lose-name-on-union-building/

Sign the petition online (to be available after Christmas)

Thanks,

Chris

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