Cafe society drives ideas off the menu

July 18, 1997

The Astronomer Royal was unequivocal. There was, alas, no staff club on the island in Sue Lawley's Desert Island Discs. He would miss the stimulation, inspiration, correction and indeed the company of his colleagues in physics, chemistry, maths, biology and even philosophy.

Of course he would. However haphazard some of it may be, that rich exchange of intellectual, academic and, indeed, administrative ideas in Cambridge seems a role model: for work-a-day talks in his own field the canteen at the observatory; for interdisciplinary, interfaculty, international interface a fellowship at Kings; for entirely neutral ground, plus links between town and gown, the splendid Cambridge University Centre on the river.

Compare all that with Edinburgh. If the university follows its most recent plan, the central staff club, once the jewel in the crown of non-collegiate provision, will close by September. No alternative provision is in sight. The Astronomer Royal's Desert Island lot is shared by outstations like clinical pharmacology, molecular medicine and clinical genetics at the Western General, the veterinary college and the teaching farms on the south side. Once the multi-branch medical school moves with the Royal Infirmary to the suburbs, its staff too might as well be on another planet unless the university comes up with a centre worthy of the name.

Greater specialisation and funding favour single-user blocks that provide their own people with pleasant enough office-hours eating places. University "glossies" label them common rooms but they are really canteens. Canteens have a part to play, when campus dispersal, increased workload, the general time factor, and changed eating patterns are leading to mid-day snacks-at-your-desk and an evening dash for home.

But it lets off the hook universities which are unwilling or unable to provide civilised central clubs for staff. When funds are short the focus is on teaching, research and salaries. Loyalties are towards faculties and departments rather than broader social or intellectual provisions, which are labelled "frills".

The danger for any first-class staff club provision is that it may be seen by accommodation or business services and even student unions as a rival and not complementary. Edinburgh, St Andrews and Stirling are likely examples.

Is it then a surprise that Edinburgh's Kings Buildings' branch club for scientists has closed after months of wrangling about its future led to some 500 members failing to renew subscriptions.

The problems do not concern the funding councils. As one source put it: "If a university had no library, we might raise an eyebrow, but staff clubs are not our business." Stranger perhaps that the mighty vice chancellors' committee has never deigned to touch the topic.

A random survey shows there are three grades of provision for staff, much of it uninspired and unsatisfactory. Only the "collegiates" attempt the three levels of canteen, college and university club or centre. With its 18,000 members, Wolfson backing and university help, Cambridge leads this field.

A middle-sized group provides facilities recognisably beyond departmental level. East Anglia, Glasgow and St Andrews are examples at the upper end of this group and with Edinburgh's possible demise, Birmingham will be top. Its well-situated, purpose-built facilities are excellent and full of life. Sadly, most probably fall into the lowest grade. Providing eating space and possibly a stereotyped menu at midday and an armchair for a coffee is seen as the limit of the university's responsibility and the staff's expectations.

The problem of staff clubs are all well enough known: finance, promotion, premises, location, management skills, salaries, staff. Not in dispute is the potential other users: clubs and societies, conferences, festivals and functions, seminars and associations. In many centres such as Edinburgh a number of universities might all be partners. It is a question of university courts recognising the vital role a thriving staff club can play in stimulating and inspiring a happy staff to work for excellence in teaching, research and their university's contribution to its surrounding community.

Edinburgh has 400 years at the centre of thought and action, not just in Scotland but on the international stage. Its present annual income of Pounds 222 million and its 150 departments with 2,423 full-time academic staff, including 230 professors, put the whole question of staff social and intellectual activities in context. It must recognise that the justification of a university is that the whole must be greater than the sum of the parts and re-establish a staff club worthy of the name, or slip back into that sorry situation where departmental cafeterias are the summit of corporate provision.

Ronald Guild is a member of the staff club continuities committee at the University of Edinburgh.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments